Going to the Space Station

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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.

Uncertainty

The International Space Station was orbiting about 256 miles above South Australia when a camera on board the orbital complex captured this celestial view of Earth’s atmospheric glow and the Milky Way. (iss057e035382 — Oct. 7, 2018) Photo and caption by NASA.

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.

Spot the Station

6:11 AM, January 15, 2018

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.

Per aspera ad astra.

5:31 PM, November 26, 2017

The Great American Eclipse: One Minute in Murfreesboro

1:28 pm versus 1:29 pm. That’s Venus on the upper right.

So, I had the rare opportunity to witness Monday’s total solar eclipse. I traveled with a friend more than 500 miles northeast of our homes in New Orleans to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, just south of Nashville.

I had noticed early on in my research that The Volunteer State was referring to this celestial event as “The Great Tennessee Eclipse.” I’m not sure how the other states hosting the total eclipse felt about this appropriation. But for my part, I thought Tennessee put on a pretty good show.

We found ourselves in Murfreesboro because it was the only place in the greater Nashville area that had a hotel room at a non-extortionary rate. In digging around the Internet, I discovered that Murfreesboro not only houses the affordable and clean Candlewood Suites, it is also home to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). I thought a University might be a good place to catch an eclipse.

Turns out, NASA must have thought so, too, because MTSU was “an official NASA viewing site for the greater Nashville area.” Their eclipse event was held on a big lawn on the campus, ringed by a new science building, older science buildings, and the library. They had set up a stage, with musical acts from a student-run record label (Nashville is Music City, after all). The buildings were open to the public, in case the viewers might want to escape the pre-eclipse heat. They had telescopes set up around the lawn, and big screens showing the eclipse in real time.

And about an hour before total eclipse time, faculty from the Physics and Astronomy department took over the stage and talked about the science of eclipses, and invisible parts of the sun’s atmosphere that become visible, and lots of other cool stuff. I liked that there were professionals, who knew what they were talking about, commentating to the crowd.

When the light started to dim, they pointed out that Venus had become visible in the Southern sky. When totality finally arrived, they instructed when it was okay to remove the special solar eyewear, and look directly at the sun. And when that minute had passed, when we needed to put our special eyeglasses back on.

But here’s the thing about that minute, that minute of eclipse totality. (Totality was longer in other places, but a minute is what we got in Murfreesboro. I’ll take it.) I can honestly state that I’ve seen nothing else in nature to compare it to.

While corresponding with Husband Tim around the time of the eclipse, I wrote: “Can’t describe it.” To which he responded: “You’re a writer.”

Touché. My response back? “Can’t describe it YET.”

Herewith my attempt: there are the pictures at the top of this post, showing the difference in the light. And there are words: incredible, awesome, amazing – all overused, and thus, lacking in true descriptive power. Awe-inspiring and phenomenal do a slightly better job. But still not adequate.

The word that most closely describes the experience for me? It’s gestalt. The German word, which I’ve always taken to mean things coming together to become something greater, greater than just the sum of their parts.

The extreme rarity of the event, the appearance of the night sky at 1:30 in the afternoon, the drop in temperature, and just looking up and seeing a black hole where the sun should be – these all came together to create a very intimate and transcendent moment. Imbued with personal meaning beyond all the mechanics at play.

During totality, and for a few moments after, fireflies lit up around the base of the tree where we stood. I remember seeing fireflies at my father’s camp in the woods when I was very young. Back during a time when I was much closer to magic, and fantasy, and the surreal.

Before Monday, I couldn’t have told you the last time I saw fireflies. All of this gives me the feeling that maybe magic, and fantasy, and the surreal were never really that far away after all. It’s making the time to look for them that remains a top challenge.