Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe - Mike Massimino (2016)

Part IV. The Door to Space

Chapter 15. WEIGHTLESS

The first thing I did in orbit was my Tom Hanks routine from Apollo 13, taking off my helmet and floating it in front of me. Then I took my gloves off one at a time and floated those in front of me as well. I looked away to do something and when I looked back up one of the gloves was gone; it had floated off. That was rookie space lesson number one: Hold on to things. They get away from you.

I started unbuckling myself from my seat. Linnehan was already out and heading up to the window to take a picture of the external tank before it dropped away from us and burned up on reentry; this was to see if there was any external damage or loss of insulation foam that needed to be documented. I was right behind him. I had to get up to the window and take a look outside. John Glenn’s view of Earth in The Right Stuff was the thing that had rekindled my space dream, and now, twenty years later, it was my turn to see it for myself.

We were over the Indian Ocean, which was a beautiful shade of blue with puffy white clouds sprinkled across it. I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you’re magically floating above everyone else. I could see the ripples in the ocean, the horizon with the blue atmosphere in a thin, hazy line. It was like all the pictures I’d seen, only a thousand times better. I lingered for a moment, staring out. Then it was time to go to work.

The shuttle’s crew compartment is small, only 2,325 cubic feet for seven people to live and work in for nearly two weeks. Up on the flight deck is where you get the amazing views, with six forward-facing windows for the pilots to fly the ship, plus two windows in the roof and two in the aft bulkhead looking out at the payload bay. In the floor of the flight deck are two hatches leading down to the somewhat claustrophobic, very utilitarian mid-deck, virtually every inch of its walls taken up by storage lockers and the gear needed to live and eat and sleep in space. On the aft wall of the mid-deck is the airlock going out to the payload bay. The airlock is a cylinder with a round, forty-inch hatch leading to a space that’s about five feet in diameter and seven feet long, just enough room for two astronauts in EVA suits to wait to go out on a space walk.

Scooter and Digger were up above us on the flight deck, checking out the systems, doing engine burns to put us on the right trajectory to rendezvous with Hubble. The rest of us were busy on the mid-deck going about the tasks necessary to convert the shuttle from a rocket ship to a spaceship: setting up the toilet, the galley, the exercise bike. That takes a couple of hours, in large part because adjusting to being weightless takes so long.

From the minute I started moving around, I felt like a bull in a china shop. In the space station, astronauts can barrel themselves down the tube and get up some speed and fly like Superman. You can’t do that on the shuttle. You can spin around, leap from the floor to the ceiling, but that’s about it. On the first day, even doing that is difficult. Your sense of motion is all messed up. You feel crazy out of control at first, or at least I did. I’m naturally clumsy, plus I’m big, and I didn’t know my own strength. I was banging into everything, knocking into people. One time I reached for something on an overhead panel and my finger accidentally banged into a wall and flipped a switch. There’s switches and instruments all over the shuttle—over two thousand different displays and controls on the flight deck alone—and you don’t want to go around randomly turning things on and off. That’s bad. So you move slowly, awkwardly, trying to develop some sense of control. The whole process is like learning how to walk again. It’s the same with your hands and fingers and fine motor skills. You go to grab something and, instead of grabbing it, you bat it away and you have to go chasing it. You’re like an infant concentrating on picking up a Cheerio for the first time.

And you feel horrible, absolutely terrible. Adjusting your body to space is painful. The first thing that happens is the fluid shift. There’s tons of fluid in your body: blood, plasma, water, mucus. On Earth, gravity keeps it pushed down. In space, it’s free to float up to your head. Everybody’s face was red and flushed and puffy. We were floating around, looking like puppets in a Mardi Gras parade with giant papier-mâché heads. The other thing that happens is that your spine elongates—again, because there’s no gravity keeping it compressed. You grow about an inch in space, and all those sensitive muscles in your back have to stretch and adjust. That’s painful, too.

Then there’s the nausea. “Stomach awareness” is the official term. That whole first day I floated around feeling like I was going to barf at any moment. Space sickness is actually the opposite of seasickness. The effect is the same, the nausea and the vomiting, but the root cause is different. When you’re below deck on a boat, you can’t see the motion of the sea, so your eyes are telling your brain that you’re completely still, but your vestibular system is going up and down with the waves. It’s the same thing if you’re trying to read in a moving car. The conflict between those two sensory inputs is what creates the feeling of nausea. In space, you’re floating around and this time it’s your eyes that are telling your brain that you’re moving and your inner ear that’s telling your brain that you’re still, because your inner ear doesn’t move when you’re weightless.

The more you move around, the worse it gets. You think you’re going to get to space and be weightless and have fun doing flips and floating upside down, but in space there is no up or down. To your brain, floating sideways or upside down feels the same as standing right side up. So if you spin around or flip upside down, the sensation you get is not that you’ve spun or flipped around. What you feel is that the room is spinning and flipping around you while you’re staying perfectly still, which causes the worst vomit-inducing feeling of vertigo you’ve ever experienced. After a couple of days you get used to it. You can have a conversation on the ceiling and not notice. But it takes the brain time to adapt, so at the beginning you move as slowly as possible.

One of my main jobs that first day was to help Nancy set up the robot arm and open the payload doors, an important task. The equipment on the shuttle generates heat, and the payload bay doors have radiators on them that radiate that heat out into space; otherwise you’d cook yourself. If you can’t open those doors, you’re going home. I tried to ignore the nausea and focus on doing that with her. Everyone else was doing the same, plodding around, doing their tasks, nobody saying much. It was not a party atmosphere. It was not “Yeah! We made it to space!” It was “Ugh. Leave me alone. I’m gonna puke.” That kind of sickness trumps everything. You can be in space, you can be at Disney World, but as long as you have that grumpy, barfy, nauseated feeling, nothing is going to make life okay. I forced myself to drink a bunch of water and immediately threw it up. After that, I felt better.

Around six hours post-launch the shuttle was set up and ready for our journey to Hubble. I had a bit of time to look out the windows, but not much. It was already time to go to bed. Window shades go up on the flight deck, because daybreak comes every ninety-seven minutes and you have to block out the sun. Once they were installed, we started winding down. I took off my contacts and put on my glasses. I brushed my teeth. When you rinse, you either have to spit into a towel or swallow; I swallowed. I took a sleeping pill to help me get to bed.

Your first night in space is weird. The pilot and the commander sleep on the flight deck. Other than that, you can sleep pretty much anywhere. On the ceiling if you like. Grunsfeld wanted to sleep in the airlock, because it’s cooler in there and he likes being cold when he sleeps. I was in the mid-deck with everyone else. You have a sleeping bag and these clips you use to attach and cinch it to the wall. You don’t want to be floating around because you’ll knock your head. Then, when you get inside the sleeping bag, you’re kinda floating inside this cocoon. Once you get used to it, it’s the most relaxing way to sleep ever. What they’ve also found over the years is that people like having their head against something, even if they’re floating in the air, so NASA developed pillows that attach to your head with a Velcro headband.

I felt strange that first night. I’ve never dealt well with transition, with new things, and this was the ultimate new thing. I was out of sorts. I felt horrible. Everyone was grumpy. I was like, Is this all there is? But then once I was in bed—and maybe it was the anti-nausea medication—after a few minutes I started to feel better. There was something about going to bed that made me feel okay. The day was over and I had a chance to relax and reflect. I’d made it to space.

Every couple of hours that night I woke up. The first time I didn’t know where I was. That feeling you get when you wake up in a strange hotel room and for a minute you don’t remember what you’re doing there—it was that same feeling, only in space. Where am I? Where are my kids? This isn’t my house. The weird thing about waking up in the middle of the night on the shuttle is that it’s the only time you’re actually alone in space. The rest of the day you’ve got six other people on top of you. But you wake up and everyone’s asleep in their cocoons. You’re groggy and fuzzy and there’s nothing but the dim light from the toilet, the low hum from the fans, every now and then a crackle from the radio upstairs. You could easily be stranded alone on a spaceship orbiting Mars in a science fiction movie. It’s very, very eerie but also really, really cool.

Every morning on the shuttle the ground crew plays wake-up music selected for members of the crew. We woke up on day two to John Hiatt’s “Blue Telescope.” By that morning I was hungry again. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had left over from the day before, and once I started eating, for the next ten days I didn’t stop. Eating in space was fun. All your food is pre-prepared. You don’t have to cook it. It’s dehydrated and you add water and heat it up. You select your own menu, too. Spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, shrimp cocktail, steak, lasagna. The hot meals are in pouches, and you cut the pouch open and eat. You have to be careful, because everything floats, but that’s the fun part. Popping M&M’s in the air and going after them and chomping them like Pac-Man. I actually gained weight in space, which no one ever does. The doctors were confounded, but I just loved eating up there.

The drinking water on the shuttle is a by-product of the fuel cells. It’s actually a brilliant piece of engineering. We have tanks of liquid hydrogen and tanks of liquid oxygen. When they’re combined it creates a reaction that produces power for the fuel cells, and the by-product of that is water, which is then purified with iodine. It’s much better than the drinking water system on the space station. They use solar arrays for power, which means there’s no water being generated. They have some delivered, but 80 percent of it is recycled urine, sweat, and condensation collected through a filtration system that cleans it and puts it back out. As my pal Don Pettit described it: Today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee. I was glad I was going to Hubble.

By day three, we were closing in on Hubble and our main objective was to rendezvous with it, a complicated and delicate task. Naturally, we were roused by the theme from Mission: Impossible. Wake-up was around 8:30 p.m. Houston time. Just after midnight we reached the telescope’s orbit, coming in about ten miles behind it. We slowly closed the distance between us until finally we had visual contact. At first sight, the sun reflecting off the telescope looked like a distant star, another point of light among all the others. Slowly it grew bigger and bigger, taking the familiar shape I was used to: a bright silver cylinder. It was shinier than I expected. This man-made thing, this marvel of human engineering out in the middle of space, was an incredible thing to witness.

The final half mile of the approach was hand-flown, with Scooter taking manual control of the shuttle, firing the engines to slow us down and make tiny course corrections. Nancy was preparing the robot arm. I was standing by as her backup and also taking photographs and pictures to document the rendezvous. The whole crew was tense, focused. Scooter was closing the distance between us at less than half a mile an hour. The whole thing played out like the high-tension climax of an action movie, only in slow motion. At thirty-five feet, Scooter held our position and handed things over to Nancy to grapple the telescope and bring it in.

At 3:31 a.m., over the Pacific Ocean just south of the coast of Mexico, Nancy successfully grappled the Hubble and brought it down and secured it in the payload bay outside the cabin. There was a huge sigh of relief and much rejoicing from everyone in the cabin. We were happy campers. But relief gave way to anxiety as a new thought overwhelmed me: Now that we had it, I was going to have to go out there and spacewalk on it. My mind started racing with thoughts and worries about what I was going to have to do. To be honest, once I got used to being in the shuttle, even though I was in space, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. Other than the weightlessness and the view, you could easily be inside the simulator back in Houston. It’s actually quite comfortable. The food is good. The toilet works. We were wearing polo shirts, for Pete’s sake. How dangerous could it be? But spacewalking was a different story. Spacewalking was going to be nuts. We were going to get into these suits and put on helmets and gloves and go outside.

On day four we woke up to “Five Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” This was Grunsfeld and Linnehan’s big day. Whichever spacewalking team isn’t going out works as backup for the team that is. You help them get dressed, check their gear, like the cornerman helping a fighter get ready for the ring. Once the other team is outside, you and your partner take turns running the EVA checklist. The spacewalkers have enough to do without having to worry about remembering each and every task.

That first space walk was going to be a mirror image of what Newman and I would be doing the next day, swapping out a solar array. I thought it would be good idea for me to watch them do it first and see what I could learn. That was a bad idea. I would have been better off just going out and doing it. I was watching those guys out there in front of me and thinking, Oh my God. They’re actually outside. Spacewalking. I’m gonna have to do that? It scared me to death. Linnehan had the same daunting task I did, rotating the array, and it was his first space walk, too. There were a few moments where it went herky-jerky on him and he had to bring it under control. I winced every time. I’m doomed, I thought.

As nerve-racking as it was to watch from inside, that first space walk went smoothly. The new array went on without any problems, but the hard work took a toll. After they came back in, I went to Linnehan. He looked exhausted, physically and mentally. He was drenched with sweat, his fingers and hands white and pruney from the moisture. His hair was messed up and he had red marks all over his skin from rubbing against his suit He looked like he had been through a war and come out the other side. I asked him, “What was it like out there?”

“It was hard,” he said. “Much harder than in the pool.”

Some people will tell you the pool is actually harder, because there’s resistance and gravity and other forces to contend with. “It’ll be easier in space,” they say. Oh no it won’t. Why? Because you’re in space, that’s why. Everything is harder in space.

That night Newman and I prepped for our space walk. One of the things you do is put anti-fog on your visor. It’s Joy soap, actually, the kind you buy at the supermarket; it just happens to work well as an anti-fog solution in space suits. Joy stopped making this particular kind, so NASA bought up a lifetime supply, basically every bottle available in the world. You have an applicator and you rub this soap on and buff it. Newman and I went up on the flight deck and watched the Earth go by in the windows while we polished and buffed our helmets.

I took another sleeping pill to get to sleep that night. I was that nervous. I knew that the next day was my day. It was going to happen. I was going to go out in that space suit and I was going to have to perform. I’d be doing it under a microscope, too. Everything you do out there is being recorded by helmet camera. Everybody’s watching. Anything goes wrong, and everybody knows. I had this incredible anticipation. Not like Christmas morning; more like the first day of school, where you’re excited by the new possibilities but also terrified about making friends and not screwing up.

The next morning I woke up, had breakfast. I put on my polypropylene underwear to absorb my sweat, my liquid cooling garment, the biomedical sensors the ground crew would be using to monitor my every breath. I got my drink bag ready; you can’t have any air bubbles in it, so you spin it around until the bubbles are at the top and then you squeeze those out. Grunsfeld and Linnehan helped Newman and me into our suits, first the pants, then the torso, then the gloves. I went over my notes in my flight notebook, went over my checklist. The final step was the helmet. I scratched my nose one last time, gave a nod, and Grunsfeld carefully placed the helmet over my head, lowered it onto the neck ring, snapped it into place, and then locked it.

Inside the airlock, you go through your final checks and then you to do a forty-minute pre-breathe of pure oxygen. The air we breathe on Earth is a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases, and the air pressure at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi). When your body moves to a lower air pressure, like the vacuum of space, you can get nitrogen bubbles forming in your blood, which is what causes decompression sickness—the bends. The atmosphere and air pressure inside the shuttle are normally engineered to be identical to what we experience on Earth. But twenty-four hours before the first space walk we depressed the shuttle cabin to 10.2 psi and kept it there. That made the change in air pressure less extreme. Then you do the pre-breathe of pure oxygen on top of that to rid your body of nitrogen, and that way you don’t get sick.

During the pre-breathe, you’re attached to the wall to keep you from banging around. So, right before you’re about to face the most difficult moment of your entire life, you’ve got forty minutes to do nothing but hang there and obsess over everything that could go wrong. I tried to stay focused, going over the checklist on my cuff, thinking about my tasks, double- and triple-checking to see if everything was right with the suit. But my mind wandered. My eyes kept drifting nervously. At one point I looked at Newman and we locked eyes. He nodded at me and I nodded at him. Then I looked over at the outer hatch. I remember staring at it and thinking: There it is. That’s the door to space.

I wonder what’s on the other side.