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I awaken early for the big day and sail head first to the lower deck. The rest of the crew are still asleep. What a strange sight that is! Like bats, some of them are on the wall floating upside down in their sleeping bags. One is asleep on the ceiling. And all of them have their arms floating outward from their chests. That's what happens when you fall asleep in weightlessness. Your arms float in front of you. It looks weird, like the crew is in suspended animation.
It's time to use the bathroom, so I slip behind a curtain and face the monstrosity that is our toilet. Except for the seat, it doesn't look anything like your toilet at home. For one thing, it has no water in it. In weightlessness, water wouldn't flush, so you need something else to carry the waste away. Our toilet uses airflow.
There are several switches and valves on its front and on each side are things that look like handles. These are really "thigh-holders", things to twist over your legs to keep you from floating off the toilet seat. You don't want that to happen! Then, there's a long, flexible hose coming up from the middle-front of the toilet. That's the urinal. In the shuttle, liquid and solid waste go into different places. The solid waste goes into an opening on the top of the toilet, while urine goes into the hose. There's even a separate container for toilet paper. You can't put paper down our toilet. And there are several checklists velcroed to the bathroom wall to remind you how to operate everything.
After turning on a couple switches, I urinate into the hose. How do girls do that in space? They put a curved piece of plastic on the hose and hold it against their bodies. For boys and girls, though, the hose works the same way. It's like a vacuum cleaner and the urine is sucked away. On a trip to Mars, that urine would be recycled into drinking water, but on the space shuttle, we dump our urine overboard. Don't worry, though. That doesn't mean it's raining down on earth. The sun will dissolve the urine.
Airflow is also used for solid waste collection, but that process is a little more complicated. You sit on the toilet, clamp your legs with the thigh-holders and open a valve. The valve turns on a ring of air jets that encircle the inside opening of the toilet seat. Those jets shoot air toward your rear end. As it bounces off your body, it carries the waste away from you and into a big tank. After you're done, you close a valve that traps the waste. It's not dumped in space. It's returned to earth. Suddenly, rock music blares from our speakers. Mission Control is waking us up. "Good morning, Atlantis!"
"Good morning, Houston!" The Commander answers the call. It's not really morning where we are. We're over the deserts of Australia and it's late afternoon. But we ignore earth time when we're in a shuttle. We're spinning around the world every 90 minutes, crossing another time zone every 4 minutes. It would be crazy to try and set your watch every 4 minutes! So we ignore earth time and do everything according to a clock that started at liftoff. It's called the MET clock or Mission Elapsed Time clock. Right now, that clock says it's morning, so everybody says, "Good morning."
The crew member who was sick yesterday, still doesn't feel well and asks for a shot of medicine from our medical kit. Our crew "doctor" prepares a hypodermic needle with an injection that will stop the vomiting. The doctor is really just a Marine astronaut who was given a little medical training back in Houston. This will be the first shot he's ever given! Would you like to get a shot from a Marine? No way!
The injection goes okay, but as the "doctor" withdraws the needle, the patient moves. That tears a tiny hole in his skin and he starts to bleed. It's nothing serious, but it gives us a chance to watch bleeding in weightlessness. The blood doesn't "run" or drip as it does on earth. It's weightless, like everything else in the cockpit. So it just bubbles on the skin. It grows bigger and bigger until it's a red marble. I watch one of these spheres come loose and float in the center of the cockpit like a ruby planet. What strange things you see in weightlessness! Finally, we stop the bleeding with a bandaid and return to work.
"Atlantis, you have a GO to grapple the payload."
The moment has finally arrived. My hands are sweaty with excitement and I wipe them on my shirt. I slip my feet under the canvas loops on the floor and grab the two joy sticks. At my right side is a television screen. There's a TV camera at the end of the arm that sends pictures to this screen. By looking at those pictures, I can pretend I'm riding on the tip of the arm. The two joy sticks allow me to "fly" it wherever I want. It's just like a jet fighter video game at an arcade.
I twist and turn the joy sticks and watch from the windows as the arm bends and moves like a human arm. In fact, it's designed after a human arm. It has a shoulder joint that connects it to the shuttle, an elbow joint that bends just like your elbow and a wrist joint that moves like your wrist.
On the television, I see the secret satellite come into view. Then, I see the foot-long spike sticking out of it. That's what I'm after. Slowly, I move the joy sticks to bring the end of the arm over the spike. In the TV screen, the spike gets bigger and bigger and bigger, until it finally disappears inside a "can" on the end of the arm. I squeeze a joy stick trigger and some cables twist around the spike. The arm is now firmly attached to the satellite.
But that was the easy part. Lifting the giant machine without damaging it will be the tough part. There's very little room. If I bang it into the side of the shuttle, some dangerous things could happen. A fuel tank might be ripped open and cause an explosion. I could damage the shuttle's cargo bay doors so they wouldn't close. If that happened, we couldn't return to earth. We'd be stranded in orbit, slowly dying as our oxygen was used up. So any mistake could ruin the mission and might even threaten our lives. It's a huge responsibility. I'm scared, but I have confidence in myself and the way the team trained me.
Another Mission Specialist flips the switches to release the latches that are holding the satellite in the cargo bay. It's finally free to pull upward. Very, very carefully, like I'm taking apart a bomb, I use the joy sticks to bring it higher. My eyes bounce back and forth from the window to the television screen. My concentration is intense. My heart is pounding. I'm holding my breath. Weightless bubbles of sweat ooze from my pores and tickle my face. I duck my head into my shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat away.
One foot...two feet...three feet...Higher and higher I bring the machine. Other crew members help me by watching out the window and using other TV cameras.
"Stop!" Somebody calls me and I release the controls. "You're getting too close to the back wall."
I look at the television and make a correction with the joy sticks.
Five feet...six feet...Higher and higher I lift. Ten feet...twelve feet. I start to breathe again. I'm finally clear of the space shuttle. I've done it! The monster satellite is floating on the end of the arm out of danger.
The rest is easy. The Commander floats to my side and grabs the joy sticks that control the space shuttle. After I release the machine, he'll fire the shuttle's maneuvering rockets to move away from it.
"I'm ready when you are, Mike."
"Let's do it."
I squeeze a trigger and the cables unwind from around the spike. Then I pull back the arm and the satellite is free. The shuttle vibrates with rocket firings as the Commander flies us away.
Against the black of deep space, the secret satellite is left gleaming in the sun. The red, white and blue of an American flag proudly shines from its side. It's a wonderful moment in my life. Thousands of hours of training have paid off. I did my part for the team. I kicked the field goal. I've put a satellite in orbit that will help guard our country and keep us free.
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