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Turning the Page to the Next Chapter of Human Spaceflight - Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of this behind the scenes look at the historic mission of STS-135. In this post, I will describe my experience during the mission’s only space walk.

I think walking in space is one of the most unique, amazing and awe-inspiring things a human being can do. In “NASA-Speak,” a spacewalk is an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity). The EVA during the STS-135 mission was my fourth. As fate – and luck -- would have it, all of my EVAs have been with Mike Fossum - three during STS-124 in 2008, and this one. Mike went out the door for his seventh EVA during our STS-135 “walk.”

Time leading up to the EVA was very challenging. Usually, an EVA team spends many hours training underwater together in the largest indoor pool in the world, The Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

Since we were rarely in the same country at the same time, Mike and I did not have a lot of opportunities to train together (mission training takes astronauts and cosmonauts to Japan, German, Russia as well as the U.S.). I had been in space for almost three months by the time of the EVA, Mike for a little over one month.

Tasks were added to the EVA that neither of us were able to train for. For this spacewalk, we relied on prior training, the experience of our previous EVAs together, and the great training materials that were sent up to us by the EVA team in Houston.

Look Down!

In preparation for the STS-124 EVAs, Mike and I “camped out” the night before each one in the Quest airlock at reduced air pressure to help purge our bodies of nitrogen to combat getting the bends.

This time, we used a new method originally tried out on STS-134. We were able to sleep in our own quarters, and have a much slower paced morning before the EVA began.

Tradition!

During the STS-124 mission Mike and I developed a tradition. As we made final preparations the night before each EVA – getting our tools and equipment and getting ready to go to bed, we would listen to Pink Floyd’s "Dark Side of the Moon". Then on the morning of the EVA, Led Zeppelin fired us up to go out the door. Even though we weren’t “camping out” for this EVA, the tradition held. I think STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson might have thought we were little nuts as he and Satoshi Furakawa helped us into our spacesuits.

After putting on our liquid cooled undergarments, slithering into our spacesuits, and installing all our tools and emergency jet packs, we were stuffed into the part of the airlock that is depressed to a vacuum. In order to fit, and to be able to work our respective equipment during the depressurization, Mike was pushed in head first, and I was pushed in feet first.


Before being pushed into the airlock, Mike and I in a pre-spacewalk "huddle" with Chris Ferguson and Rex Walheim. Satoshi is taking pictures.

Can I Whistle?

Once the hatch was closed, and the air started to get sucked out of the airlock, I decided it would be fun to see if I could whistle at reduced pressure. This was reminiscent of my time living on the bottom of the ocean during the NEEMO-9 mission when it took me a few weeks to re-learn how to whistle at the higher pressure of 2 ½ atmospheres. It was just an innocent curiosity, but it received a lot of media attention. I was able to whistle until the pressure inside my spacesuit was just too low for me to make any sound come out. ABC News produced this segment about our attempts to whistle in space.

Look Down!

When the airlock was at vacuum, Mike opened the hatch and headed outside while I started gathering our bags and equipment to pass out to him. When it was my turn to step outside, I climbed through the hatch and was greeted by a wonderful sight. We were directly over the Bahamas (one of the most beautiful spots on Earth to view from space). Usually, when I exit the hatch Mike says, “Ronnie don’t look down,” This time, I beat him to it and said, “Hey Mike look down! The Bahamas are below us…We really do have an unbelievably beautiful planet”


Sandy Magnus photographed what I saw the moment I stepped outside - our beautiful planet.

Stepping Out Into My Backyard

Before the EVA, I was very curious to see if this spacewalk would be different from those I took previously. It was, most definitely.

STS-124 was my first trip to space, and had been there for just four days before heading out the door. Everything was so new and strange that at times (maybe most of the time) it didn’t seem real. As I looked at this marvelous sight of the Earth hanging in the blackness of space before me, it seemed like part of my brain was saying, “look at this incredibly beautiful sight,” while another part was saying, “yeah it’s beautiful, but it’s not real.” I think this happened because I had nothing in my experience to compare it to. At times, it felt more like a dream than a real experience.

This time, however, having lived and worked in space for nearly three months, it definitely felt real. It felt as though I was stepping out into my backyard. Everything, including the Earth, felt familiar.

I remember during my first mission looking down at the Earth and marveling at a beautiful spot, and wondering where we were. This time it seemed that every time I looked down I knew where we were.

I had some absolutely stunning views of places that I have visited and places that are important to me. I remember marveling at Corsica, Sardinia, the Great Lakes, Baja California and saying hi to my family watching from Mission Control as we floated over Houston on a crystal clear day.

The Beast

One of my first tasks was to strap my feet to the end of the large Space Station robotic arm and grab a 1,500 pound pump that needed to be loaded into Atlantis' payload bay for return to Earth. Even though a massive object like that has no weight in space, it still has mass. This means it requires force to start it moving, and then an equal force to stop the motion. Holding on to this beast, the robotic arm “flew” the pump and me over to Atlantis’ payload bay where Mike was waiting.


Image: NASA TV

On the way over to Atlantis’ payload bay, I had no view of anything but the massive pump I was holding, and the darkness of space. I couldn’t see any part of the Space Station, Space Shuttle Atlantis, the Earth or even the stars. To be continued