UND In Space: Day 8 – Docking Day

Day 8 – Docking Day: by Tim O’Keefe

The long night associated with a 2:30 a.m. launch of UND alumna Karen Nyberg beget another very early morning, as our group of family and friends headed to the Baikonur, Kazakhstan, community center. We were there to watch the docking of the Soyuz space capsule with the International Space Station and the ensuing opening of the hatch uniting the 3 astronauts on the ISS with Karen, Luca Parmitano, and Fyodor Yurchikhin as the newest occupants.

The short night due to the launch really made no difference in terms of sleep. Like most everyone else, my adrenaline was flowing so hard that I couldn’t sleep much anyway. The entire experience in Kazakhstan capped by the launch is largely indescribable and has been exhilarating, making sleep secondary.

Frankly, I thought the docking and hatch opening might have an anticlimactic aura, coming just six hours after the liftoff of Expedition 36.

I was wrong.

We were separated in the auditorium, family and officials from NASA and the European and Russian space agencies in the back of the room where television hookup to both NASA TV and the Space Station were set up; and those of us as invited guests toward the lower part of the seating.

The launch of Expedition 36 carrying Karen and teammates to the Space Station occurred just four minutes after the ISS passed over the launch site. The team then spent 6 hours (90 minutes an orbit) chasing the ISS, and we were able to watch the view from the Space Station for the last half hour as the Soyuz capsule approached and eventually docked with ISS. This chase began over southern Australia, passed over New Zealand, and the docking then happened over southern South America.

Interesting, amazing, very cool!

There was then a delay prior to the hatch opening as the Soyuz astronauts secured the connection of the space capsule to ISS, and equalized pressure allowing them to open the hatch after the astronauts on ISS opened theirs. 70 percent of astronauts/cosmonauts who go into space get nauseous the first 24 hours once in orbit or shortly after arriving at the Space Station. Perhaps this can be described as a result of the ultimate “motion sickness” as they adjust to weightlessness and the constant sense of going in a downward circle as they speed around the earth —completing a full orbit every 90 minutes. Neither Karen nor her astronaut husband, Doug Hurley, have experienced this phenomenon, unique to their physiology. It’s an occasion where being in the minority percentage is a good thing!

During the delay, the European Space Agency held a champagne reception, which was very moving. Superstition closely held by the Europeans and Russians dictates you never toast the crew until after they have safely arrived at the Space Station. Doing so in advance is a major taboo, and quickly results in a “scolding” as one of our group discovered Tuesday before the launch. Every several toasts toasted Luca in particular, the first Italian to go into space. Nothing like a couple glasses of champagne at 9 a.m. after a night of no sleep. In this case it just seemed appropriate!

The hatch opening was another thrill. You could see the crews at both ends were excited to see each other.

NASA video of hatch opening

While the astronauts/cosmonauts must act like a team on the Space Station, and ISS plays a major role in bringing the powers on Earth together, make no mistake that geopolitics are always present. For example, Russia and Japan are in significant dispute over some islands north of Japan, which the Japanese claim historically are theirs. Thus, when the design of the Space Station was proposed, and the Russian and Japanese were shown as “neighboring” modules, the Japanese refused, and now are located as far away from the Russians on ISS as possible.

When the hatch was opened, Luca was first out, next was Karen, then the flight commander Fyodor. Each had huge smiles, ever present on Karen from launch through the opening. Big hugs, then off to a conference with family and various officials present in the auditorium in Baikonur.

As you would expect, it was an emotional time, highlighted by Luca’s 6-year-old daughter telling him, “I love you Daddy, and will miss you.” Watching the dynamics of the families the past few days has been interesting to say the least. Luca has two young daughters, Karen has a 3-year-old son, Jack, and Fyodor three young daughters. They will be at the Space Station until November 11. Obviously the launch is very dangerous, and the various challenges spending six months apart require a huge commitment.

The Space Station cost $150 billion to create through an international partnership, and through its research has created significant ongoing impact on our lives as a result of what we’ve learned. As an example, astronauts wash their hair with a powdery substance which is simple to us and dries very quickly. From the effectiveness of this product in space has come a growing use in nursing homes, simplifying a difficult process for aging senior citizens.

After the family conference was concluded, we were back to “hurry up and wait.” Return to the hotel, finish packing, and bus to the Baikonur airport. Let’s just say the process leaving Kazakhstan was tedious, very hot, and long. Four checkpoints, each with an X-ray of your personal items. Long lines, very slow. We finally were “wheels up” at 2:30 Kaz time, with a three-hour flight back to Moscow where the time zone is two hour earlier than Baikonur, 9 hours later than the Red River Valley.

Once we landed in Moscow, we were off into Moscow traffic, which is unlike that I’ve ever experienced in the US, including LA, Phoenix, etc. What would have been a half-hour drive to the hotel took two and a half hours. They don’t honk, just crawl along in traffic as far as you can see. The prospering economy and the shift to a capitalist society has opened opportunities for people to buy cars. Our guide tells us the Russians don’t save money — the government has always “taken care of them.” So, with good times, everyone buys cars where 15 years ago very few people owned a car except party officials. And, there is no real “suburbia” — the 10 million-plus Moscow residents essentially are all packed into a 20-mile radius.

Back to the hotel at 7:30 p.m. Moscow time, exhausted but still exhilarated from perhaps the most incredible day of our lives. We were privileged to attend on behalf of UND, and so proud to be associated with an alumna like Karen!

Off for some rest.

More tomorrow, our last day to report.