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EPISODE Four
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CHAPTER 4
 "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 complete circle.
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 below.
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 roar.  Nothing!
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 thing, too.

I 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 during daylight.
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.

I 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.

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