The Other Side of the Hatch
Shannon Lucid writes a letter home
Monday, July 22, 1996
Another week, another EVA--or at least that is what it seems like right now here on the space station Mir. Yuri and Yuri have just finished their fourth EVA in less than three weeks and are busy at this very moment getting ready for their fifth. There may even be a sixth. Even by Russian standards, that is a lot. Their fourth EVA was done on their 100th day in space. In answer to your question, no, it is not a routine, business as usual activity; there is a very real sense of anticipation that steadily increases as the EVA time approaches and peaks during the actual event. We have, though, established a certain working pattern preparing for these EVAs.
Several days in advance, Yuri and Yuri check out their spacesuits. Spacesuits are left here on Mir and used over and over; each crew person adjusts the size to fit himself. When a problem develops that can't be repaired by a crew person, the suit is replaced. The suit that Yuri is currently using has been used for more than thirteen EVAs. After the suits are checked out, any necessary changes in the station wiring or telemetry are made. If Yuri and Yuri are taking a payload out, it is positioned in the airlock. Yuri and Yuri then spend some time looking over procedures and discussing, with each other and with the ground, what they will be doing. Then, they gather together all the tools they'll be using and fasten them onto their tool tray. The tray is also positioned in the airlock.
Because of our current orbits, we don't have much communication coverage during our day, so all the EVAs have been done in the middle of the night. On the day of an EVA, we get up a little later than usual. After breakfast, Yuri and Yuri check their spacesuits again and the ground looks at telemetry to make certain that everything is in good shape. We have a quick lunch and then have a rest period. And yes, we really do fall asleep; when the lights are turned off in a module, it is really dark and you just go to sleep.
After getting up, we wait until time to go out the hatch. Yuri and Yuri put on their white undergarments that have tubes sewn in the body, the head and the upper legs and arms. These tubes are for circulating water to cool the cosmonauts while they are doing the EVA. At this point in time there is very little communication capability with mission control, so we are pretty much on our own. Just before time to enter the hatch, Yuri takes a big piece of red tape and puts it across the communication controls that I am absolutely not to touch while they are outside. He did this for the first EVA and the tape has now become a "tradition" that signals it is time to leave. I think that if I were the communication commander leaving a foreigner in my spacecraft all alone, I would wrap the entire place up in red tape.
The Russians have a tradition of everyone sitting quietly and collecting their thoughts before they begin a trip or start a new activity. That is what we do just before they leave for the airlock. We sit quietly together for a few minutes in the base block. Then Yuri says let's go, and both Yuris fly, literally, over my head like two white geese headed south. They exit the base block with a wave and they are off to the airlock. A few minutes later, I hear the airlock clang shut, and there I am, all alone in the space station.
Communication is very good between the IVA and the EVA crew people here on Mir, so I hear all the preparations that are going on as they are getting the airlock ready for depressurization. Every once in a while, they will ask me what the station pressure is, what part of the world we are flying over, what time the next communication pass will be, or what I am doing. Finally, I hear them exiting the airlock and leaving the station. I was taken totally by surprise the first time this happened because it seemed that no sooner were they out of the airlock, than Yuri was yelling at me to look out the window and start taking pictures. I looked out and there was my commander perched on the end of a very long white pole arcing over the blue and white earth below. Because the station is so big, this pole is used to transport a crew person and payload from one segment to another. It is manually moved by the other crew person.
My first thought when I saw this was, "Wow, the future is now. This is real space station work." For a number of years now, I have been seeing artist renditions of what it would be like when the International Space Station is being worked on in a routine manner by astronauts, but this was no artistic fantasy; this was real life. This was the "future" being played out in real time, and I was getting to have a small part in it. How could one person be so fortunate?
Unfortunately, Mir is big and the windows are relatively few, so I can only see bits and pieces of the EVA. After one EVA when Yuri and Yuri were looking at the video I had taken, they asked why I only photographed their backs. I told them that you can only take pictures of what you can see. We named that video "Cosmonaut Spines." Although I cannot see everything, I can hear the entire EVA. Several times during a night pass I have been watching them work in a small flat pancake of light out on the end of some module and have heard them muttering together about the mamas and the papas--the Russians use these terms instead of "male" and "female" for electrical connectors--as they work on connecting a payload to station power. It all feels so warm and homey.
After five hours of intensive work, it is time to think about coming back inside and Yuri rotates the handle that controls the long pole, swinging the other Yuri through space on the end of this cosmic "fishing pole." Yuri and Yuri then enter the airlock and begin the process of repressurization. After what seems like a long time, and after many requests for me to read them the station pressure, the airlock opens and they suddenly appear in the base block looking like two excited young boys that have just completed a great adventure. They immediately watch the video I have taken and excitedly discuss each event while drinking the hot tea or the tube of juice I have waiting. Unfortunately, even the best plans sometimes go wrong. After the last EVA, I had what I thought was Yuri's favorite juice by his place at the table. He eagerly grabbed it with a huge smile of thanks, which immediately turned into a horrible grimace as a glob of catsup squirted into his mouth. Yes, I had mistakenly gotten the wrong tube. They all look pretty much alike. My language skills are not quite at the level that I could convince him that I should at least get points for trying.
Before the first EVA that occurred while I was on Mir, Yuri and Yuri joked about what I would be doing while they were outside, saying that I would be the "commander" of Mir--commander by virtue of being the only person inside the station. They jokingly agreed with each other that I would have a large American flag hanging in the base block to greet their return. Well, no, I did not hang up the American flag. I wasn't sure how far to stretch their sense of humor, but I did make one command decision. For several weeks we had been eating what was left in the food containers and not opening any new ones. As you might guess, the selection we had was not any of our favorites; that is why it was left. Being in command, and feeling very much like Captain Kirk, I knew that the first prerogative of a good commander is the welfare of her troops, so I decided to open a new food container and have their favorite meat and potato dish warmed up and ready for them upon their return. Eating it with gusto after the EVA, neither one asked where it had been found. All they said was, "Thank you so much."
After our meal, it is off to bed and several hours of great sleep. We wake up refreshed and begin talking about the next EVA later in the week. And I begin fantasizing that maybe this time the guys will invite me to go out with them. Yes, the stars are always brighter on the other side of the hatch.