"Atlantis, you're single engine press to MECO."
The call from Mission Control means that we are now traveling so fast and
are so high that even if two of our engines failed, we could still make it
into orbit on the last engine.
We're upside down and, for the first time, the earth appears in our
windows. It's an ocean-blue world sprinkled with dazzling white clouds.
A border of black space makes the blue and white colors even more
intense. It's more beautiful than anything I've ever seen on earth. It's
more beautiful than desert thunderstorms and new fallen snow and rainbows
and waterfalls and everything else I've ever called "beautiful".
But we don't see the earth as a ball. Only the astronauts that have
travelled to the moon have been far enough away to see planet earth as a
ball. For shuttle astronauts the earth is hugely close, like an enormous
blue balloon put right up to your face. From our orbit altitude of about
270 miles, we can see that the horizon is curved but we don't see a
We're in the final minute of powered flight. Most of our fuel is gone and
Atlantis' acceleration crushes us into our seats. We hit two times the
force of gravity. Then two and a half. Then three g's. With all the
equipment on my body, I now weigh 720 pounds! The air is being squeezed
from my lungs and I struggle to breathe. Talking is done in short
grunts. It reminds me of the times when I was a kid wrestling with my
brothers and one of them ended up sitting on my chest. I could hardly
breathe, just like now. But the force isn't as bad as you see in the
science fiction movies, where it looks like the astronaut's skin is being
pealed off their faces.
"The engines are throttling."
The Pilot grunts the observation. Though you would think the space
shuttle could withstand anything, it really is a fragile machine. It
can't take more than 3 times the force of gravity or it would tear itself
apart. So the engines automatically begin to reduce their power to keep
us at 3-g's.
On the computer screen I can see the numbers counting down to engine
stop...3...2...1...zero! The crushing force on my chest is instantly
gone. The engines are off. They have pushed Atlantis to 25 times the
speed of sound or 17,500 miles per hour!
I'm weightless! My arms float up. My body floats underneath the seat
belt. Tethered checklists float on the ends of cords like snakes rising
to a charmer's flute. The drink container that I had used earlier had
shaken loose during launch and now it floats in front of my face. I grab
it and velcro it to the wall. Then, my eye catches something moving and I
turn to see the most amazing sight. A mosquito! Apparently it had flown
aboard when the hatch had been open. It looks hilarious trying to fly in
weightlessness. It's upside down and then right-side up and then turning
in a loop.
Here we are just ten seconds in orbit and we already have an emergency. A
loose mosquito is definitely an emergency! I laugh to myself. We've
trained for hundreds of hours in simulators to be ready for every possible
emergency. We have stacks of checklists and boxes of tools to get us out
of any problem. But we don't have a can of bug spray! I try to whack
our stowaway with my hand but it flies away.
For a moment, the cockpit is very still and quiet. Then...BOOM! BOOM!
BOOM! Atlantis shivers and shakes. The empty fuel tank is jettisoned and
the Commander fires the shuttle's small maneuvering rockets to move us
away from the giant container. The tank will burn up in the atmosphere
like a meteor.
The shuttle herself would follow the same trajectory and end up in the
Indian Ocean if we didn't do something. We're not quite in orbit yet. We
need just a little more speed. So the Commander fires our OMS engines
(Orbital Maneuvering System engines) to make the final push into orbit.
For a minute, everybody is shoved back into their seats with a small
g-force. Then the two OMS engines shut down and weightlessness returns
for good. We're in orbit.
I unsnap my seat belt and remember to use my fingers to propel myself.
You have better control with your fingers than with your legs. Most of
the time legs are in the way in space. They were designed for walking and
you can't do that in weightlessness. About the only thing we use legs for
is to hold ourselves steady when we want to work on something. We have
canvas loops taped to the floor. By sliding our feet under these loops we
can have both hands free. So legs aren't really important. In fact,
someday I'm sure people who have lost the use of their legs from injury or
disease will live and work in space like anybody else with good legs.
There will be no wheelchairs in space.
Our first real problem develops. One of the crewmembers pulls a plastic
bag from his pocket and vomits. Nobody understands why, but many
astronauts get sick in weightlessness. Even some astronauts who have
never been motion sick on earth have gotten sick in space. And others who
do get motion sick on earth have never been sick in space. It's a big
mystery. But those who are bothered by the sickness are usually over it
in 1 or 2 days.
As you might imagine, throwing up in space is messy. But it's also
dangerous. A person who is sick might feel so bad that they make a
mistake. And somebody doing a space walk could even be killed if they
vomited. They wouldn't be able to get the fluid away from their face and
could choke to death. Or it could plug up the oxygen circulation system
and they could suffocate. That's one reason why NASA never plans a
spacewalk before the third day in orbit. That way astronauts have time to
get over any sickness they might have.
For the next several hours everybody follows the checklist to get the
shuttle ready for orbit operations. The Commander programs the IBM
computers. The Pilot shuts off the APUs. The Mission Specialists open
the payload bay doors and turn on the toilet. Finally, we can change our
clothes and take off our diapers. Because of the long, long delay before
launch, I notice that I have diaper rash!
After the potty break, I float upstairs to check out the shuttle's robot
arm. This is a military mission and my job will be to use the arm to pick
up a giant, secret satellite and release it into space. To do this, I
will use two hand controls that look like the joy sticks on video games.
With these, I will be able to "fly" the arm almost like a pilot flies an
airplane. I will steer the end of the arm over a spike on the satellite
and squeeze a trigger that wraps a cable around the spike. Then, I will
be able to lift the satellite up. But that's on tomorrow's checklist.
For now, I just use the two joy sticks to gently lift the robot arm from
its cradle. Then I float downstairs to help with the experiments.
Many of the experiments are designed to better understand how the human
body adjusts to weightlessness. We check our vision by looking into a box
that has an eye test. We chew on cotton balls and put them in test tubes
so that doctors can later analyze our saliva. We take measurements of our
calves and thighs and find that we have lost several inches. It's not
because we've lost weight, though. It's because the extra body fluid that
used to be held in our legs by gravity is now equally spread through our
bodies. Our legs have gotten skinnier, but our chests and faces have
gotten fatter. That's where the fluid has gone.
We also measure our height. Would you believe that we are almost 2 inches
taller than we were on earth?! What's happening? The reason we've grown
taller is because the vertebrae in our spines are no longer crunched
together by gravity. They have expanded apart and lengthened our spine.
Another experiment involves testing how much space radiation astronauts
are exposed to. This experiment includes a human skull! The person it
belonged to had willed their body to science. Doctors took the skull and
implanted a device inside it to measure radiation. Then they covered the
bone with a plastic face. By flying it in space, they are able to tell
how much space radiation penetrates a live astronaut's skull bone and hits
the brain. From this data they can then design radiation shields to
protect astronauts who are in space for long periods of time. Too much
radiation could cause sickness or even death.
Another Mission Specialist and I decide that we can "borrow" the skull for
a minute to have some fun. I get in one of our sleeping bags and pull my
head below the opening. The other Mission Specialist then tapes the skull
to the top of the bag so that it looks like the head of whoever is in the
bag. The disguise is really scary. The face of the skull has evil
looking eyes and there are two bolts sticking up from the back of the head
that look like horns. Even Captain Kirk would have run if he had seen
this thing floating around his spaceship!
Ever so quietly, my accomplice floats me to the upper deck where the rest
of the crew are working. I have my arms through the arm holes in the
sides of the sleeping bags. Carefully, I push myself to float to the back
of an unsuspecting crewmember. Hovering behind him, I breath loud and
slow, making a deep, raspy, evil sound. The victim turns to investigate
and..... aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! He screams as I grab him! It's the
attack of the horned alien from planet X!
Later, we stuff the sleeping bag with some clothes and buckle our alien
onto the toilet seat to surprise another crewmember. See, astronauts like
to joke around, too.
After many hours of conducting experiments, Mission Control tells us that
we can go to sleep. Most of the crew tie their sleeping bags downstairs
to get away from the sunlight. There are no windows in the lower deck so
you can sleep in the dark. Upstairs, the sun will be rising and setting
every 45 minutes, making it hard to sleep. But I want to stay awake
awhile longer, so I tie my sleeping bag under the windows that are on top
of the aft cockpit. Then I unpack my portable tape player and put
headphones on to listen to music. NASA provides the tape player and we
are each allowed to bring 6 music tapes. Some astronauts listen to
country & western or rock or easy listening music. But my choice is music
by classical composers like Beethoven, Pachelbel, and Bach. I like the
slow majesty of their music. To me, it seems to better fit the silent
flight of an earth-orbiting space shuttle and the grand sights passing
With these soothing melodies in my ear, I get in my sleeping bag and watch
our beautiful world slowly glide by. The shuttle is flying upside down so
the windows on top of the cockpit are facing the earth. It's like being
in a hammock with the world in your face.
The other crewmembers are asleep and Mission Control is watching the
shuttle data to make certain nothing goes wrong. Gravity is holding us in
orbit so nobody needs to "steer" the shuttle.
The only sound in the cockpit is the soft "whooshing" noise of the fans
that cool the electronics. My mind struggles with the strange reality.
It's so different than anything I've ever known on earth. I'm traveling
almost 5 miles each second! At that speed I could fly from Los Angeles to
New York in just 10 minutes! Yet, there's no sound with that speed.
Always in the past, when I've been traveling fast on a bicycle or in a car
or on a train or plane, there was noise generated by that speed.
Sometimes, like in a fighter airplane, there was lots of noise. But now,
there's no noise. Nothing. No air rushes by the cabin. No engines
Adding to the strangeness of the situation, is that I'm floating inside my
sleeping bag with no force on my body. You don't need a bed or a floor to
sleep in weightlessness. The air is your mattress. In fact, the only
reason we use bags is so we don't float around and bang into something.
You could actually sleep by just clipping a tether to your belt loop and
hooking it someplace and just floating on the end of the line like a
kite. Some astronauts have done that.
But I'm in my sleeping bag, listening to Beethoven's violins, floating in
an absolute stillness, watching the beautiful earth. The sight is the
very definition of the word "beautiful".
Many kids ask me if astronauts watch television on the space shuttle. No,
we don't. We don't receive ground television. But even if we did, we
would never watch it. For entertainment everyone does exactly what I'm
doing. They watch the earth. If you were up there, you would do the same
feast my eyes on the glory of earth. The primary color is blue, for we
live on a water planet. What would aliens from a strange desert world who
have never seen water, think of ours? Would they assume that any
intelligent earth life must live in all that "blue stuff"? Would they
land their flying saucer in the ocean?! Maybe the bottom of the oceans
have a bunch of flying saucers with drowned aliens inside.
The clouds thrill me as much as they did when I watched them as a kid. In
some places they are scattered across the ocean like little puffs of
popcorn. In other places they completely cover the earth. There are
great milky swirls of low pressure areas, like the swirls you see going
down the bathtub drain. Feathery mare's tails (cirrus clouds) look like
they are painted on the blue sea. Thunderstorms are another joy to see.
Even from my great height, it's obvious they rule the sky. Sometimes
there are lines of them, standing shoulder to shoulder like warrior chiefs
wearing great feathered headdresses. Other times, they are just scattered
across the ocean. But always, their tops are smeared into long, pointed
anvils by invisible jet streams.
I turn my attention to the sky. It is absolutely, totally black. And the
sun is absolutely, totally white. You can't look directly at the sun but
in your side vision you can see its brilliant, white rays. There's no
yellow to it, like on earth.
There's also a quarter moon looking very lonely in the huge blackness. It
doesn't appear any bigger than you see from earth. Remember, the moon is
240,000 miles away. We're only 300 miles closer! That's like being on
one side of the classroom and seeing a globe on the far side, then taking
a one inch step toward the globe. It doesn't look any bigger. You can
sort of think of an orbiting space shuttle as having taken just a tiny,
tiny step toward the moon, so it doesn't look any bigger.
The brightest planets are also visible from the cockpit windows. Even
though I'm still on the day side of earth, I can see Jupiter and Saturn.
If Venus was up, I would be able to see it also. But the planets look no
different than they look from earth. They appear as bright stars. They
are tens of millions of miles away, so we're really only a tiny,
tiny step closer to them.
Sirius, the brightest star, is also visible. It's just a steady point of
light. There's no twinkle to it as you see on earth. That's because its
light has reached me without going through murky air. It's the earth's
air that causes stars to twinkle. But Sirius is the only star I can see.
Why? Where are the others? I don't see them because there's too much
sunlight reflecting off the earth and the shuttle. That causes the iris
of my eye to close and cuts off the dim light that's coming from the other
stars. They're out there, but I can't see them in daylight. It's just
like trying to see stars from the middle of a city. You can't. You have
to go into the country away from lights so the iris of your eye will open
wide and take in the dim starlight. So now you can laugh when you see
science fiction TV programs, like Star Trek, showing stars out the windows
Silently, Atlantis glides eastward and the sun sinks behind her. Below,
the tallest thunderstorms cast shadows that are hundreds of miles long.
Now, comes the most beautiful sight of all. As the sun sets, the earth's
atmosphere acts like a prism and splits the light into its individual
colors. For a moment, after the sun is completely down, the horizon is
outlined with a brilliant rainbow of colors: red, orange, yellow,
turquoise, blue, and purple. The colors get dimmer and dimmer as we fly
further and further to the east. Finally they blink out. Then, there's
no trace of the earth. We're swallowed by the black. It's as if we've
flown into a deep, deep cave.
remove my headphones, yawn and close my eyes. It's time to go to sleep.
But it's hard to turn off my brain. I'm worried about tomorrow. The team
is depending upon me. I will have to use the robot arm to grab our secret
payload and lift it from the shuttle's cargo bay. What if I'm not good
enough? What if I make a mistake? What if I can't do it? Back in Houston,
I practiced a thousand times in a simulator that looked like a video game.
I also practiced lifting giant helium balloons out of a simulated shuttle
cargo bay with a simulated mechanical arm. The helium made the balloons
weightless, like our cargo will be. But practicing with video games and
balloons is one thing. Working with a real arm and a real cargo is
something else. One mistake and I could ruin the mission. I feel like the
field goal kicker that's warming up on the sidelines of a football game.
The team has gotten the ball within field goal range. They've done all they
can do. Time is running out. Now, the kicker will have just one chance to
win the game.
I'm like that kicker. My team, the NASA team, has done all they can.
They've put me in position. Tomorrow, I'm going to have one chance to win.
With that thought comes a nibble of fear, like I felt before launch. I
don't want to let the team down. I don't want to let the nation down.
Everyone's counting on me.
But, in the end, my exhaustion overcomes the worry and I fall asleep.