The clatter of keys behind me, the occasional chuckle, and the inevitable groans confirm that my crewmates are as dedicated to today’s mission as I am. A former NASA employee once told me that astronauts spend much less than 5 percent of a space mission in EVA suits. I can imagine that it’s true. There’s much to be done here that doesn’t require a suit.
InsertArt(1971061)TODAY’S MISSION is to log videotape: During our mission so far, Commander Steve McDaniel (and film producer) told me, we have filled up 90 hours of videotape, and before we leave here in a few days, we need to have a log filled out on every one, to account for every minute on every tape: when the event took place, who was there, where the action was, etc. This is tedious, tedious work, but it gives us a chance to review and remember what we’ve done during the time we’ve spent here.
ECSTASY AND AGONY
Of course the most exciting footage occurs when we are in EVA suits, but we are “in sim” when we are sitting at our laptops logging video, sending e-mails to Mission Support, or doing our WinSCAT human factors surveys. Being in sim means not to go outside unless we are wearing EVA gear, to simulate the activities of a Mars mission — in all its glory, but also in all its mundane aspects, too.
NASA astronauts and the people behind the scenes spend countless hours working through simulations, rehearsing every scenario, writing mission plans, perfecting research techniques, talking with project sponsors — doing the mundane work without which there would be no support for missions, no mission at all. All that’s forgotten — by the public, at least, when the cameras show us the launch vehicle.
Of course, all the TV shows and movies we’ve seen, and all the dramatic TV footage of space missions, show action. Attending conference meetings, writing proposals and reports, working in laboratories, training on equipment, lobbying Congress — those activities don’t make for good TV. We viewers see astronauts striding down hallways and across tarmacs looking like space adventurers. They are smiling and confident. They are wearing high-tech spacesuits, not business suits. They wave at us as they enter their spaceships, and the doors close behind them, separating them from us. We are earthbound, but gravity can’t hold them. They are space cowboys; they have the right stuff.
This is the picture that fires the public’s imagination. And I’m sure it’s inspired many a young person to want to be an astronaut. We love this portrait of what’s great about humankind. The reality is, however, that in order to take that trip across the tarmac and ride that elevator to the crew compartment, those astronauts have spent years preparing. And it’s easy to forget that behind them are folks with no chance of taking that ride who have devoted as much time and energy into making that mission possible.
REMEMBERING THE RISK
The liftoff is a dramatic emblem of power and force harnessed for one purpose. We gasp when we see this. The television image shakes a little. We imagine what the ride might be like, what the astronauts are saying as they feel the ship lift off.
InsertArt(1971062)So often, though, we don’t see the liftoff. And the mission goes so smoothly that we don’t take note of it. We outside the space community generally don’t keep up with the shuttle missions. “Which one is this? What were they doing up there?” we ask when we hear that the shuttle is returning to earth at such-and-such a time. And then something happens that catches our attention. We suddenly realize that those confident, smiling astronauts knew something all along that we had forgotten: that inherent in their journey is risk.
We’ve been remembering this fact during our rotation here at our Mars research station. We’ve all snitched peeks at Digby Tarvin’s book of the month, “Disasters and Accidents in Manned Space Flight,” by David J. Shayler. This volume has been the catalyst for some of our late-night conversations about the sacrifices our space explorers have been willing to make. One of the best-thumbed chapters is about the Challenger explosion, and I found something very interesting there.
Everyone remembers payload specialist Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was lost when Challenger fell from the sky. But I’ve often wondered what happened to Barbara Morgan, the teacher who served as McAuliffe’s backup. She was watching the shuttle from the ground that day — though she had gone through the same training as McAuliffe and was herself prepared to fly. Many folks might imagine she went back to the classroom and stayed there, back to the life she led before that day, thankful for her lucky escape. But think of this: In 1998, she became a career NASA astronaut.
VISITING THE MEMORIAL
I thought of her just yesterday, on our first full-crew extravehicular activity, when we seven visited the memorial built near Marine Rock this summer by the folks over at the Haughton Mars Project. This memorial, in honor of the recently lost crew of the space shuttle Columbia, is built of rocks gathered on Devon Island. Its shape is an allusion to stone way-markers created by the Inuit people, and therefore it figuratively says “show the way” at the same time it captures the shape of the lost shuttle on its launching pad. We stood and appreciated the thoughtfulness of the builders of this memorial and the courage of those whose loss it reminds us of.
We caught our visit to the memorial on video last night, and one of these days soon, we’ll catalog it. We’ll complain about the time it will take to count the minutes as they pass on the tape, but we’ll remember our visit there and look out our Hab window in the direction of the memorial. We’ll be quiet a minute and think about this way-marker in the Arctic desert, and we’ll be reminded that those who’ve reached for the stars are still showing us the way there.
© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to MSNBC.com.