Expanded space station crew off to smooth start
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: June 1, 2009
Orchestrating the work of six full-time astronauts aboard the International Space Station is a bit like "herding cats," a Canadian crew member told reporters Monday, adding that living in the surreal weightlessness of space was like floating in a Salvador Dali painting.
"First of all, the water is great!" NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt said during the expanded crew's first orbital news conference. "It's probably as good as or better than anything you'd buy out of a fancy bottle on the ground.
"We try to use our water (regularly) to keep our processors primed and happy and we're all hydrating drinks and hydrating some of our sublimated food and it's a very convenient system. We've got hot water, cold water ... and absolutely no complaints about the water up here."
Barratt, space station commander Gennady Padalka and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata were joined Friday by three new full-time crew members - cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium and Robert Thirsk of the Canadian Space Agency.
The new crew members arrived aboard a cramped Russian Soyuz capsule launched last Wednesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Shuttle-veteran Thirsk said the Russians provided first-class transportation.
"If you think of the space shuttle as a powerful SUV, then the Soyuz is a nimble sports car," he said. "It did an incredible job getting us into orbit. The ride was quite a bit smoother, I thought, than the shuttle. For the first two minutes of a shuttle flight, it's pretty bumpy, it's impossible to read. But in the Soyuz, it was smooth all the way up. ... I just regard the Soyuz as a miracle."
While visiting shuttle crews push the combined crew size even higher, the arrival of Romanenko, De Winne and Thirsk opened a new era of space station operations. With six full-time crew members, the lab's science output is expected to increase dramatically.
The station's complex life support systems are working well, including the critical urine recycling system referred to by Barratt, The problems encountered so far, he said, are the minor sort of growing pains one might expect when doing something for the first time.
"For me personally, I feel very much at home," Barratt said. "I come from a large family and I'm used to a lot of activity and 'busyness' and a lot of laughter, and we certainly have that now with these guys coming (aboard)."
The size of the station helps, he said, given the astronauts can work in three dimensions in a way impossible on Earth.
"The station is very large and six people still don't quite fill it, it's a very comfortable venue for six people to work with, I would say, pretty intensive timelines," Barratt said. "And these guys got to work right away, so I can tell you for sure that that's true."
Thirsk said the greatest challenge is simply becoming more efficient.
"I think for the newer members of the six person crew, it's a little bit like herding cats for Gennady, trying to get us all organized and getting us all to accomplish our tasks in a day," he said. "The learning curve is steep. We've been here, Roman says, five days now. I think we've learned an awful lot, so the working efficiency is coming.
"But believe me, this is a surreal world here. I sometimes feel like I'm in the middle of a Salvador Dali painting here. My greatest fear? Astronauts always have fear of injury or death, but our greatest fear is of making a mistake. So I just hope I can get through this six months without making any serious mistakes."
Overall, Barratt said, the crew's integration has gone smoothly, with no major hiccups. Sharing meals together, however, has been a bit of a challenge. The galley in the Russian Zvezda command module, their usual place to eat, is a bit cramped for six.
"But we've set up another table in (the Unity module)," Barratt said. "Quite frankly, we didn't know how it was going to work until these guys arrived and we tried it out. So we've done a lot of tweaks to our food system and right now we're finding out that it does work pretty well.
"So I'd say we're starting out functional and we're going to make it more efficient and a little bit more palatable as we go along. But certainly no show stoppers. It's very comfortable having six people here right now."
Another long-term issue for the crew is staying in touch with family members.
"For people who have an interest in science and technology, there can't be a better job than astronaut," Thirsk said. "But there is a price to be paid, there is a sacrifice to be made and unfortunately, it's the family that needs to make that sacrifice. It is important to stay in touch.
"We communicate every day, we have email, we have an internet protocol, or IP, phone that allows us to phone any phone number in the world, including that of our family. Then once a week, we'll have a planned video conference as well."
The station crew faces a busy first few weeks in orbit, gearing up for a pair of spacewalks June 5 and 10 and arrival of the shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for launch June 13.
For the first spacewalk, which begins around 2:45 a.m. EDT June 5, Padalka and Barratt plan to route cables and mount an antenna to prepare an upper docking port on the Zvezda command module for eventual use by visiting Soyuz ferry craft.
A second, internal spacewalk is planned for June 10 to rig the upper hatch with a docking cone. For the second spacewalk, Padalka and Barratt, wearing Russian spacesuits, will remain connected to umbilicals while working in the depressurized transfer compartment between Zvezda and the Zarya module. The work is expected to take about an hour.
If all goes well, Endeavour's countdown will begin that same day, targeting a launch at 7:17 a.m. on June 13. Assuming an on-time liftoff, docking with the space station would be expected around 3:50 a.m. on June 15.
"With 13 people up here, it'll be a challenge," Barratt said. "Of course, we'll have the added volume of the shuttle added to the stack, it'll be a massive stack. But it'll be busy, and there will be a lot of coordination, a lot of activity, a lot of patience, but these are the guys to do that."