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How does someone from Indiana spend a Saturday afternoon in space? In December 1997, American astronaut David Wolf, aboard the Russian space station Mir, took a run on the treadmill, daydreamed, and wrote this note to his friends and family. Three months into his 119-day mission, Wolf relates what life in space, where even a simple coffee spill can take on new dimensions, is really like. Although he was getting used to life in space, he reported, "my holiday shopping is way behind."
Letter Home from Mir
By David Wolf
December 22, 1997
To: My Great Family and Friends on Planet Earth
Subject: The Great Black-Currant Jelly Juice Spill
Saturday always was a great day. Even holding a bactericidal rag, scrubbing the walls in the Base Block of Spaceship Mir. I can quit any time and not quite sure what to do next. Perfect. Actually have some true free time today, a pricelessly rare commodity in space, or on Earth for that matter. Time to notice little things. Like, how these earphones provide plenty of anchor to float back and daydream in the slow air current. The orbital equivalent of a nap on the beach with a summer breeze. And I couldn't work on the gutters even if I wanted to.
Feels great to knock off 8 or 9 thousand miles on the treadmill. Feet tingle strangely from the unaccustomed pounding against the rubber track. Even the Martian 1/3 gravity, provided by the bungie harness, is excessive pressure. The impacts and forces imposed on our bones and muscles are necessary, medically. They serve as a biomechanical reminder of a future return to Earth. In space, we must "trick" our bodies into retaining bone mineral and muscle mass. Their strength will come in handy when gravity inevitably repeals our temporarily granted superpowers. But my mind is far from all of this. Deep in the music and touring the cosmos watching worlds unfold in the large viewport. The Martian-red soil of Saharan Africa dominates the planet below. Once great, Lake Chad is now surrounded by a chalky white bed. The skeletal remains of the loser in an unkind ecological struggle. Unearthly black scars streak across the reddened landscape. Appears that Leo angrily swept his claw down on Earth, leaving a bloodstained desert. In the headset, McCartney's images of Venus and Mars come alive. Starship 21Z8A9 reports inbound. Passions of the music are magnified and rush in to fill the void of overdue earthly feelings. Feelings only our Earth, and you, can provide. From space we see the cosmos, the whole planet. But, we can't touch, smell, or feel any of it. The space traveler's paradox.
Unsettled thoughts surge as we pass over that signpost so familiar to space travelers, the Rasheed Formation. How can this be. Perfect, enormous concentric rings etched into the rusty soil. They far better suit an intended navigational buoy, on a planetary scale, than some accident of nature. In epic progression appear ancient Egypt, The Great Nile, The Roman Empire, The Islands of the Iliad, and The Red Sea. Each sets off a Homeric adventure played out in an open galactic theater. A final anaerobic sprint runs my heart rate up to 193. That should show the docs on the ground what this ol' ticker can do. I know they are monitoring. They are assessing our readiness for spacewalks next month. Soon the all important "bicycle test." 150 watts for 2.5 minutes. Sounds easy. Would be, if we could use our legs instead of our arms. Lying back I catch my breath in a free-floating endorphin recovery. The dial on the CD player turns down the dream. Reluctantly, I allow the fine line to creep back between imagination and reality. Starship 21Z8A9 fades. It is now OV-105, our newest space shuttle Endeavour, for which we wait. Three months in space and only now realizing just how good it can feel. Got to bring this back to Earth. Is it the workout, or the joyride through the universe I crave? Hard to say.
In the van we glanced at one another, doing the same. Words don't mean much on the way to the launch pad. There are no second thoughts. Consent was well thought out and provided long ago. Instinctively we reach down and tweak the valves of our liquid air cooling units. Inside the spacesuit a cool wave of instant gratification courses through hundreds of tubes against our skin. My eyes meet with Commander Wetherbee's in time to catch that easy glance which says, "This, my friends, is why we got into the business." Someone quips that everyone else is going the other direction. A brief round of laughs. It's a good time for jokes. Short ones.
It begins feeling a little lonely as the police escort waves off and turns around. Outside, the starfield is eclipsed by a gigantic metallic hulk. The Crawler. Last month this steel giant, reminiscent of an Orson Wells radio show, delivered 4 million pounds of rocket to Launch Pad B, Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center. Awesome in itself, this giant foretells the scale of what lies ahead. At the fire house we run into a few friends going our way. The close-out crew. The final five of the awesome team that put this rocket together. They will strap us in, shut the hatch, and make the final checks (from a list of millions). Then they, too, will go the other way. It is with them that we share these fine moments on an armed and ready-to-fire launch pad.
The driver speeds along. Seemingly unnecessarily fast to me. Maybe he thinks we might change our minds if given enough time. Round the bend and WOW. Every time, WOW. One more time, WOW. Space Shuttle Atlantis, towers against the evening sky. Breathing and alive. Venting white plumes of cryogenic oxygen from her thirsty main engines. Every eye, padlocked, respecting this raw union of power and beauty. Her main engines run, literally, on water. Pure hydrogen and oxygen are supercooled to liquid form and then loaded into the giant external tanks. At lift-off the engines' voracious thirst is finally quenched, at 1000 gallons per second. A minus-300-degree cooling drink is served to the combustion chambers by 12 separate 70,000 RPM turbine-driven turbopumps. Each powered by a "small" rocket engine of its own. The hydrogen and oxygen atoms are so anxious to combine into water that they do so with a small energy surplus. 140 million horsepower worth of surplus. That's some serious horsepower. Pure energy of the hydrogen-oxygen molecular bond. A trail of white water vapor tracks this five-mile-per-second beauty as she bolts for the stars. There is some real chemistry here.
With typical hesitant style, the freight elevator refines its position and the doors slide open. A stiff cool breeze, not present 196 feet below, welcomes the small crowd. Cooling units in one hand and helmets in the other, they step out onto the open steel grating. I find it helps to not look straight down. A glance right verifies the escape route to the slidewire baskets, just in case we decide to leave in a hurry. I hear that ride rivals the one uphill. At the bottom is an underground bunker with an M114 tank. To the left, a narrow catwalk extends to the "white room." We look busy waiting our turn to strap in. I like using the little-known telephone. It really surprises people to get a call from here. Nobody was home. Elbows resting on the guard rail, Scott peers out at the untouched Florida coastline. Wendy notes the neat little black letters painted on the solid rocket boosters, "LOADED." Velodia and I debate the difficult Russian translation of the word "fun." On the ground below, fueling pipes lead radially outwards to huge cryogenic propellant tanks. Drops of liquefied air collect on the supercooled surfaces and roll off into silvery pools, fuming in the moonlight. A low cool fog gathers and steadily encroaches from the surrounding darkness. It tumbles in over the intense xenon spotlights, but never quite makes it up the grade. A quiet symphony of creaks and groans plays ubiquitously from the living structure. There is no place like the pad in the hours before launch. As I enjoy a slow breath of thick evening air, Al's head pokes through the swinging doors of the white room. "Hey Wolf, you ready," he shouts with that patented gleam in his eye. With a grin, I cross the catwalk. Al takes a final careful look over the parachute harness and oxygen connections. I'll see him again in 50 million miles or so.
I would like to report a persistent and annoying effect relating to the visual perception of free-floating objects in a spaceship. On Earth, if we lay a wrench on a table we are quite easily able to look back and see it. In space, if we let go of this wrench it of course floats and changes orientation and position. It is uncanny how we are literally unable to see it when we look back. It is there, for sure. And it is just plain invisible against the complicated background. Somewhere between the image on the retina and our brain's cognitive center, it is being erased. The following hypothesis would be testable, and therefore possibly useful, in determining why this happens. "In order to help us find things in a complicated visual field, our minds have evolved 'filters' which 'block' images which are probably not what we are looking for." This could be quite useful when we hear a rattlesnake in the woods. We would like to quickly determine its position and direction without checking every tree branch and root. So we just check the ones that look like a snake. We don't really see the others. It would also be an advantage in quickly identifying the ice cream man, on a busy street, before he sells the last ice cream sandwich. The concept is actually central to the field of human factors, from design and placement of street signs to laying out an aircraft cockpit. In order to "see" things they should be placed in expected and constant orientations (colors...). Our hypothesis would predict this and thus explain why we have a particularly tough time "seeing" objects in space, as we and the objects float around. This hypothesized "visual filter" stubbornly conceals the most familiar of objects. We just don't expect the pliers to be pointing straight at us, at eye level, one foot in front of our face. So it can't be the pliers and they therefore aren't noticed at all, while we are looking for pliers. Ironically, the specific act of searching (i.e., filtering) seems to conceal the object of our desire. Sounds like love is involved here somewhere. You really feel like an idiot as the pliers hit you in the forehead moments after you gave up looking for them. Interestingly, the following is what usually happens. As soon as we give up looking (turn off our pliers recognition filter) and turn away, we happen to notice a floating object. Take a closer look and there's our pliers. It really works. In this crazy place sometimes you have to quit looking in order to find something. I really think there is something deeper in all of this. It really should come as no surprise that manipulating gravity would help us understand our own bodies. Because, to quote one of our country's leading space physiologists, Dr. Larry Young, "Gravity, along with oxygen and water, are the most important factors determining the form and function of our bodies." Hope I got close, Larry.
A few notes on things we do get used to in space. At about the two-month point, the last traces of the "stuffy" head go away. This "stuffiness" is thought to be caused by a headward shift in the body's fluids. Things taste good again. Especially the shrimp cocktail. The last traces of disorientation, as we move around in three dimensions, goes away. Our inner ears and nervous system have learned how to process data to give us accurate information on our actual movements in the true physical world. Our senses stop lying to us. Evidence from our last flight indicates that there are actual changes to our neural wiring diagrams that likely bring about this adaptation. Scary. Nobody thought our nerves could change connections. Raises some interesting possibilities.
We now know where things are located in our new house and laboratory. More of a trick than you might first think in three dimensions. I'll just say that for quite a while, if I happened to enter a module sideways, I might not even know what module I was in at first. But then, I get lost easily on Earth, too. The walls, ceiling, and floors are equally utilized. Bonnie, if we could just harness this on Earth it would introduce a whole new wave to interior decorating. When we let go of something, to free up a hand (not recommended with anything of value), our minds automatically spawn a new process which tracks the little booger so we can find it again (without depending on a "filtered" pattern recognition search).
The new research gear has been shaken down and we now know the particular idiosyncrasies. We can get right down to productive work. The toilet works better, or is it me? The flight crew and the Earth team have learned each other and are really clicking. We know what each other is able to do, needs to do, how and when. We adjust our own schedules to deconflict or help each other out. We know each other's buttons, and stay away from them. We employ more and more sophisticated aerobatics to move around within the station and to effect collision avoidance with each other. Nevertheless we have had a few doozies in the docking node. Seems that the traffic rules are a little hazy with respect to three bodies, approaching a six-way, three-dimensional intersection simultaneously at high speed. We are still arguing fault.
The whole team is really hitting it's stride right now. This is what the Space Station Era is all about. Taken together, the little efficiencies turn a 16-hour day into say, 11. That sure means a lot at midnight when you want to float back and appreciate the adventure. Tolya and Pasha [Anatoly Soloyev, Russian cosmonaut and Mir Commander, and Pavel Vinogradov, Russian cosmonaut and Mir Flight Engineer, whose stay aboard the Mir lasted from August 7, 1997 to early February, 1998] are master craftsmen as they handle this ship. Occasionally Tolya, flashlight in teeth, will disappear behind a wall panel, tools and parts in tow. Hours later, as the sounds of drilling and wrenching subside, he emerges. Another increase in Mir's life expectancy achieved. Pasha has more systems in various stages of dismantling and remantling than you can shake a stick at. I have a few projects in work also. All these interact and require careful coordination among ourselves, the Russian ground team, and the U.S. ground team. This is no sleepy, out of the way, space station. This place is hopping. We don't always agree on things (Tolya always wins). Sometimes things happen, like the "Great Blackcurrant Jelly Juice Spill," that may even set us back a bit. There are definitely challenges in blending our two great spacefaring nations. But, the result is a new era in spaceflight. This is gonna be good.
Just as I am bragging about how used to space we are, I pull one of the most absurd stunts yet. Tolya, Pasha, and I are all together in the base block (to be sure they got a good look). We are on headsets talking with Mission Control Moscow. I have just filled up a hot bag of coffee, cream, and sugar. Nice and full. Maybe a little too full as there is a little pressure in the bag. No problem, I'll just hold it closed with my teeth for a moment. My hands are full with a notebook and pen making a few notes to call down. Pasha, a bit excited, points out the window at the "Inspector" satellite which he deployed yesterday, by radio control, from the Progress resupply ship. This was a test for the planned "robotic free-flyer" for use on the International Space Station. It will reduce the requirement to do a spacewalk every time we need to inspect something outside of the ship. It will just fly around and send pictures back. To get a good look, I push off towards the viewport located in the commander's sleeping area. Of course, just as I enter, the headset wire snags on something and knocks the coffee bag partially out of my teeth. It begins dumping hot coffee at a surprising rate into my face and up my nose and into my eyes. I can't even breathe as my face is encased in a growing blob of hot coffee. It was clear that if I even moved it would go all over the commander's personal things. Couldn't even say anything as I needed to keep what is left of the coffee as contained as possible with my teeth. I hear Pasha hysterically laughing as I demonstrate some kind of blind choking burning space gasp. Patti, that's what all the gurgling was on the air-to-ground loop earlier.
While we are on the topic of space stupidity I might as well make a full confession. The three of us are having a nice dinner one fine Sunday night early in the mission. Still on "just met" good behavior. They are watching me pretty closely. I am trying to make a good impression as to how well I have trained and know how to do things up here. With great generosity, Tolya presents me a rare bag of dehydrated "Blackcurrant Jelly with the Pulp" juice. All I have to do is add water. To my horror I realize I have just cut the "drinking" end open instead of the "filling" end. No problem. Just carefully add the water, not too full, don't mix it hard, and it won't leak. Nobody will even notice. Worked perfect. Until 15 minutes later when I pick it up again and out of pure instinct give the bag a big shake to mix the thick pigment purple powder. To make really sure it mixes well, I simultaneously squish it vigorously. Forgetting that I had already erroneously opened the drinking end, my first thought was, "What on God's Earth could that rather large mass of thick dark-purple material, heading for the commander's head, be?" He has quick reflexes but the television set, the rack of audio cassettes, the stereo, a white air duct, and a rather large section of wall, were not so well endowed. Tolya's wide eyes rolled in disbelief as he dodged the incoming mass. We all watched helplessly as the amorphous blob pressed on to ground zero. Good first impression, huh? Now you know the real reason I have taken on a few extra chores related to house cleaning around here. Particularly the walls. It cleaned up pretty well but I have definitely 'left my mark' on Mir.
There are two things we never get used to in space. Looking at our Great Planet Earth and missing the great people on it. Since you can't be here and I can't be there, e-mail sure helps us share our experiences. Your letters mean a lot to me. I read them all four or five times. There's a lot of good ideas in them. My holiday shopping is way behind. Think I'll use the "I was in space" excuse this year. Actually the holidays will be pretty interesting in space. Just think, I can eat all I want and not gain an ounce.
There's Tolya floating above the dining table reading his Sunday paper. He's been reading that paper for 2 months now with total interest. In a sense we have stopped time up here, as the world passes us by. It will sure be fun to catch up when we return. Well, still some of the weekend yet to go and no real plans. Like it best this way sometimes.
While gravity is not a part of my thinking right now, all of you in it sure are. Have a great holiday season. It is going to be a great New Year.
Best Wishes from Space,
Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Profile: David Wolf
David Wolf Oral History (PDF)
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