Wednesday, December 7th (GMT 342)
Another day with not quite enough sleep, but my strategy of napping before heading in for my shift seems to be working so far this week. It always takes a few days to get into the rhythm. Really, on day 3 the days are starting to blur together and when I get home I have to make lists of the interesting things that happened. Let’s see what I can remember from Wednesday night.
Wednesday was marked again by ISS Commander Dan Burbank spending most of the day working on some payload assembly with the control center at Marshall. I tune it out most of the shift, just keeping my ears open for those few key words that mean that someone is talking about my system. Today I have a pretty good to do list to keep me occupied for the whole shift so I get down to work.
One thing that’s fun about working in ISS mission operations is the great balance between steely professionalism and having fun. There is almost always some inside joke or decorations on the consoles in FCR-1. Lately there is a small stuffed Gremlin (like from the movie) who has been moving from console to console, depending on who has the system with the most “gremlins” that week. But this week is all about Christmas decorations.
A Santa hat for every console, not to mention the various snow globes and tiny Christmas trees. The gremlin is even wearing a Santa hat – festive!
I had to work the night shift for 9 days last year starting on December 20th. It’s kind of a rite of passage – the new guys every year get put on the Christmas or New Year’s shifts. It was a fun experience, looking after the ISS on Christmas Eve. Ground Control replaced the image of ISS on the world map with Santa and his sleigh and someone brought in Christmas dinner for all of the flight controllers. It was fun but lonely. Like working a week of night shifts is always lonely, but multiplied.
But of course this year I’m off the hook, so I can enjoy the decorations happily (thank you to those who are working the holidays this year!).
Today I spend some extra time looking at the video screens when I can. The two most fun things to watch are coastlines and sunsets. I think I probably get to see more sunsets and sunrises from space than the astronauts do. When they are busy working they usually aren’t near the windows but in the control room we get 4 big video boards showing live shots from orbit constantly. The crepuscular rays as we cross the terminator never get old. As for coastlines, today we have a few good orbits across Southern Africa (Northwest to Southeast) and then heading back Northeast across Australia.
It definitely looks warm and sunny down under. The ISS is such a tease.
At about 5 AM I ask the Flight Director to “take two” and head downstairs and outside where it is decidedly the opposite of warm and sunny. I’m not taking a smoke break – I’m taking a reality check.
I stare up to the Southwest and after a few minutes she appears – the ISS gleaming in orbital dawn passing across Texas out over the Gulf of Mexico. It takes a good while for the ISS to complete her trip across the sky and over the horizon, but it’s still not long enough to drive reality home. That bright light is a huge hunk of metal screaming along at 18,000 mph 300 miles over my head with 3 people inside, and it’s my job to go back upstairs and make sure they are safe. Mind. Blown.
To be honest, I’m not sure the human mind can really comprehend such a concept. Just like we can understand what a light year means but never fully imagine at a proper scale in our head such immense distances. It’s all numbers and video screens back inside – it’s like a video game. I try to tell myself “that’s the ISS”, “that’s what you’re doing here” but I think my brain just sees it as another light in the sky. Maybe the people that have actually been on that light can watch it fly overhead and really understand what it means?
The shift ends with a little bit of excitement. Something in the payload Commander Burbank is assembling creates a spurious fire “warning” message causing alarms to sound onboard ISS and some extra red messages to show up on displays – we don’t like red. Of course, the well trained flight control team quickly determines that it’s a false sensor reading and there is no overheating equipment. All is well. Fortunately tonight wasn’t the night, and I get to head home.