Almost two months ago, I wrote about the failed mission to send new crew members to the International Space Station (link to the post, titled Uncertainty, here). At the time, people who watch these types of things were wondering how long the current Expedition 57 crew would need to prolong their stay. Or would they need to eventually abandon the Station altogether?
It turns out, they won’t need to worry about that. Expedition 58 launched earlier this week, carrying three crew members up to the orbiting platform, 250 miles up in the sky.
And one of those crew members is me!
Okay, not really me. But NASA Astronaut Anne McClain is now settling into her new home for the next six months. Along with David Saint-Jacques (Canadian Space Agency) and Oleg Konenenko (Roscosmos), they will share quarters with the Expedition 57 crew until December 20. That’s when Alexander Gerst (European Space Agency), Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA), and Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos) return to Earth.
I have to note a few things about Anne McClain. Talk about an inspirational human being! West Point graduate, Colonel in the U.S. Army, test pilot, rugby player, mother. She first announced her intention to become an astronaut when she was three years old. She became an astronaut in 2013, and Monday’s trip to the International Space Station was her first spaceflight.
When you’re a writer in this current digital / Amazon age, you pay attention to search results. So I’ve known for years that there was an astronaut named Anne McClain, and have always been thrilled by the name similarity. And now I’m delighted by this recent convergence.
Next time I watch the Space Station track across the sky, I will know that Anne McClain is up there, doing her astronaut thing. I can think of no better inspiration to keep doing my Anne McClane thing (that’s writing, to be clear) down here on terra firma.
I don’t often write about the news in this space. It’s not because I don’t pay attention. I take a similar approach with my day job…while I spend at least a quarter of my time there, I devote very little of this real estate to it.
It’s not because I’m not affected by the goings-on in the world, or at my place of employment. I am affected by the goings-on, for sure. Probably a little too much. So much so, as it turns out, that I look to this blog as a bit of an escape.
But there was a news item from last week that I am compelled to write about. It might have easily slipped some folks’ attention, given the impending mid-term elections, and the horrible devastation Hurricane Michael unleashed on Florida’s panhandle and throughout the southeast.
What I’m compelled to write about is the October 11 failure of the Soyuz rocket that was powering a crewed mission to the International Space Station. Fortunately, the occupants of the capsule, astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, survived the aborted mission, apparently no worse for the wear.
However, they were supposed to relieve the current three-person crew onboard the International Space Station. While that crew was set to stay on for another couple of months, the failed mission has put their planned December departure into question. Will they stay on for longer than originally intended? Or will they have to abandon the Space Station altogether? I have read that the station is equipped to fly unmanned for a period of time; but I’ve also read that it’s had a continuous stream of inhabitants for the past eighteen years.
I’m hearing that NASA expects to be able to launch another crewed mission by this December, which would make all these questions moot. However, until they figure out just what went wrong with the Soyuz rocket, the current occupants of the Space Station will have to live with a level of uncertainty more consistent with life down here on terra firma.
And that’s what I was thinking about, when I took a break from my writing this past weekend to watch the International Space Station make a six-minute trek across the sky. It was a clear, lovely evening, and the New Orleans weather had finally turned a touch cooler. But I felt a little melancholy, as I watched the bright reflection of the station carrying Commander Alexander Gerst (European Space Agency), astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA), and cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev (ROSCOSMOS).
Watching the Space Station pass is like a talisman for me, reminding me to seek some perspective on, or away from, my worldly concerns. But this time, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the three human beings up there. They have to deal with setbacks and uncertainty, just like the rest of us do. The perspective that is slowly dawning on me, is just how connected and similar we all are.
Even if you happen to be orbiting the earth 250 miles from its surface.
Mere minutes after I posted last week’s story about the International Space Station, I went outside to watch it pass overhead again. 48 hours had passed from the sighting I featured in that post. And what a difference 48 hours made.
Really, it took less time than that for the city of New Orleans to plunge into a deep freeze. Overnight, we had been visited by the winter storm that blew over most of the U.S. last week. It was definitely cold by New Orleans standards, though certainly not as cold as it was further north. But here’s the thing about New Orleans: the city is surrounded by water. Every road into the city passes over some body of water.
And when the temperature goes—and stays—below the point at which water freezes…well, let’s just say things don’t go well for the citizens of this normally fair (and mild climate) city. Last week’s freeze brought us some absolute tragedies: a baby died and his young mother remains hospitalized after their car slid off an icy road into a drainage canal. She was trying to get him to his babysitter so that she could go to work.
For most of us, the consequences weren’t so tragic. Inconvenient, to be sure, and potentially costly, but not tragic. All the Interstate highways into the city were closed—as I mentioned above, every road passes over water—and we learned the truth to those highway signs: “Bridge Ices Before Road.” So, New Orleans was effectively shut off from the outside world, at least via ground transport, for a few days.
And pipes froze all over the city. Ours was a typical story: a pipe underneath our house froze, and when things started to thaw out, same said pipe developed a leak. Unfortunate, but it certainly could have been worse. The pipe only affected the plumbing on the north side of the house—the kitchen sink, dishwasher and laundry (and hot water heater). The bathrooms are on the other side of the house.
With leaks busting out all over the city, it put a drain on our municipal water system. Water pressure dropped, and the city issued a “boil water alert” to ensure the water that managed to come out of the tap was safe to drink.
I worked from home on Wednesday, the first day of the freeze, to keep an eye on the frozen pipe. I drove into work on Thursday morning, only to discover that my employer’s parish (I work in Jefferson Parish / I live in Orleans Parish) had lost water pressure. They didn’t have functioning toilets (among other issues), and Jefferson Parish had issued their own “boil water alert.” So I completed the phone meeting I had driven in for, took my laptop, and worked from home the rest of Thursday. To discover our leaky pipe by the end of that day.
So what does any of this have to do with the Space Station? I wrote the following last week, regarding why I continue to heed the text alerts I receive from NASA, telling me when the International Space Station will be visible in my sky:
“…whatever’s going on in my world, whatever’s causing me anxiety or drama, those alerts are a reminder to look up.”
At that particular moment last week, I already knew we had frozen pipes. I had not yet awoken Husband Tim and informed him of this fact. I already knew the Interstate nearest my house— and the eponymous Overpass from my first novel, The Incident Under the Overpass,—was closed.
If you take a closer look at the picture above, you’ll see the ice on my neighbor’s car, and the ice on the sidewalk. The bright point above and to the left of the Space Station is Jupiter, I believe. But what you can’t see is the cold stillness of those five minutes I spent outside. Or the supreme quiet. I will not likely experience such quiet again this year, as the closed highways meant I couldn’t hear cars in the distance, like I usually do.
The consequences of the freeze were waiting for me that day. But for five minutes in the early morning, I bundled up, watched my space friends track against the sky, and enjoyed the silence. And thought, “I’m sure it’s a lot colder up there.”
So, on Monday I saw the International Space Station for the first time this year. I qualify this year—2018—because I’ve been looking for (and usually finding) the ISS in the sky for a couple of years, now. And I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, too, but something else always seems to bump it back in line.
I began this exercise two years ago, when a friend from work told me you could sign up for alerts, to let you know when the Space Station is visible in your corner of the sky. The alerts are super convenient, because they take all these factors into account:
It has to be dawn or dusk, because the ISS reflects the light of the rising or setting sun. It’s not visible in the middle of the day or night.
The ISS must be 40 degrees or more above the horizon.
It also travels at roughly 17,500 miles (28,000 km) per hour, circling the Earth every 90 minutes. So it’s visible in a pretty tight window, usually anywhere from two to six minutes.
NASA does a good job of tabulating all these things, and sending a text about twelve hours before your next viewing opportunity. Here’s the website where you can sign up, if you’re interested: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/
For any given opportunity, the only things that keep me from spotting the Station are timing and weather. If it passes overhead while I’m still asleep, or when I’m in the car on my way somewhere, then I’ll miss it. And weather is about the only thing NASA doesn’t include in the alerts—you can’t see the ISS if there’s too much cloud cover.
It was supposed to be visible a bunch of times in late December, at the end of 2017, but I came up empty several days running because it was too cloudy. I took it as a good omen for 2018 that everything was perfect for Monday morning’s sighting—the sky was crystal clear, the air was cold but not too windy, and it wasn’t so terribly early as to be obnoxious. The city of New Orleans needed a good omen, as our beloved Saints just suffered a devastating loss the day before, taking us out of the playoffs.
And here’s the thing (or things), the reasons I keep going outside and looking at the sky to spot our friends in the Space Station. One, it’s a great perspective check: whatever’s going on in my world, whatever’s causing me anxiety or drama (like the collective misery of a city with dashed Super Bowl hopes), those alerts are a reminder to look up. Up in the sky, I know there are six people who are an orbit away from their homes and loved ones, who’ve given up their time and Earth’s gravity for science, for progress, for adventure—I’m sure their reasons are plentiful. It reminds me of the reasons I wake up early to pursue my writing.
Two, it’s an opportunity for a quick meditation. About whatever—perspective, gratitude, ambition. And faith. Faith that even if the sky is cloudy, and I can’t see them, the Space Station and its occupants are still up there. Faith that the next time the weather will be clear and I’ll get to track that little point of light as it zooms across the sky. And if not the next time, then maybe the time after that.
And finally, I’m not only a sci-fi geek, I’m a science geek. Astronomy, geography, geology. The very first thing I ever wanted to be was a cartographer (I’d say “map maker” when I was little). I imagine the occupants of the Space Station, looking down on me as I look up at them, a tiny speck way down in the boot of Louisiana. Each of us thinking how valuable, how fragile, and how momentous our endeavors are. As troubled as things may be, all over the map of the Earth, if we ever stop reaching for the stars, then hope is truly lost.