April 30, 1997
"It’s all down hill from here"

Dear John:

Whenever someone has eaten some unusual meat--rabbit, deer, dog, frog, whatever--the question “what did it taste like?” is asked. People usually say chicken; but they know that it really did not taste just like chicken, but rather exactly like rabbit, deer, dog, or frog.

Try this one yourself. What does beef taste like? Your reply? Pork? Bacon? Chicken? All answers are not quite right, right? Beef tastes like beef, period.

What is a spacewalk like? Like a spacewalk. But let me give you the “sorta like chicken” answer, so that you at least have a feel for it. And a final food caveat: when Mommy makes spicy chicken, I can’t even eat it--the same meat changes its flavor drastically. All spacewalks are different; and a spacewalk on the surface of a sprawling space station has a different flavor than one conducted inside the cargo bay of the space shuttle, than one dangling outside a capsule attached to an umbilical, than one rambling on the Moon’s surface.

Imagine this. You are in scuba gear. Your vision is restricted by the size of your underwater mask. Your fins, wetsuit, and gloves make you clumsy and heavy. The water is frigid; in fact it is thickly frozen overhead with only one entry-exit hole drilled. Your life depends on your gear functioning properly the entire time. The further away you venture, the further away the escape hole in the ice, and the less you can tolerate any failure whatsoever.

There is no bottom. Up and down are confused. Your path is not straight, but rather around obstacles on a constantly convex, falling away, prime surface. As you round one obstacle, the next appears, and soon enough it is difficult to determine from where you came.

You are not in water, but on a cliff. Crawling, slithering, gripping, reaching. You are not falling from the cliff; instead, the whole cliff is falling and you are on it. You convince yourself that it is okay for the cliff and yourself on the cliff to be falling because when you look out you see no bottom. You just fall and fall and fall.

The sun sets swiftly. Blackness. Not merely dark, but absolute black. You see nothing. Nothing. You grip to the handhold ever more tightly. Your convince yourself that it is okay to be falling, alone, nowhere, in the blackness. You loosen your grip.

Your eyes adjust, and you can make out forms. Another human being silhouetted against the heavens. When it first got dark, you were feet first falling. Five minutes later, as the cliff itself rotates, you feel as if you have reached the crest of the roller coaster, and are now barreling down steeply--steeply to the point that you feel you will flip headfirst out of your seat--toward Earth. You come out of your seat, and are falling spread eagle. Now head first. You want to flip back upright. You can’t. You decide it is okay to be diving headfirst into nothing.

You need to work with your hands. You let go. You depend on the two tethers you placed on handholds to hold. You rotate, twist, and float--all randomly and uncontrolled-- still the cliff is falling and rotating. You know you are falling with it, you tell yourself surely you are falling with it because you just attached your tethers; yet it is difficult to discount the sensation that you are moving away, alone, detached. You feel as if you are at the end of a fishing pole, which gets longer and longer and thinner and thinner at the end, and you the fish hooked to its flimsy end. It sways back and forth; you, being attached, sway back and forth. The pole no longer looks rigid and straight, but rather like a skinny S-curve. You are hanging to the thinnest limb of the tallest tree in the wind. The tree is falling. You convince yourself that it is a strong oak; that the limb will stay attached and not fracture, and that the forest bottom is far away.

In the midst of all of this, you carry out your work calmly, methodically. You snap a picture or two, and below notice the Straits of Gibraltar narrowly opening to the Mediterranean.

That is how it felt, best as I can describe it. What did I do actually?

Exited the airlock and climbed out onto a horizontal ladder. With my partner, we transferred a dresser-sized optical properties monitor (OPM) along the convex surface of the space station module, past protruding, sharp-edged solar sensors, solar panels, and other equipment; to a long telescoping pole. We then attached OPM and myself to the end of the pole.

My partner, using a three-foot-diameter ring that encircled the pole, slid along the pole to its base, which was located on a different module of station. The hand crank controls for moving and extending the pole were located here.

The OPM and myself were then swung away on the tip of the pole, telescoped out further, and then translated--very precisely and with many changes of direction in order not to collide with solar panels--to the end of a third, even more distant module.

Upon arrival, I attached the pole to its new location, we rejoined at my end, and installed the OPM. A third cosmonaut, inside the space station, confirmed that our cable connections were good by looking at some sensors inside. We returned by the same means to the original module, where we detached two large (1.5 meter square) cosmic dust/space debris collector panels for return, attached a radiation dosimeter, and re-entered the airlock with the panels.

Closed the outer hatch. Repressurized the airlock. Opened the inner hatch. Yanked ourselves out of our spacesuits. Opened the second inner hatch. Ate dinner. Did some required post-spacewalk work in the airlock. Went to bed. Slept soundly, contentedly--all tasks accomplished flawlessly (in the words of the ground controllers, with no argument from me).

Good night, John. I hope that you aren’t awakened by a nightmare where you are falling, falling. Shuttle will be coming soon--it is all down hill from here.



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