Mark Shuttleworth - January 22, 2002: presence of mind - One of today's lectures was our first introduction to the schedule that we well follow while on the station. We have a huge amount of work to get through when we arrive, and the smoother we can fit into the existing station routine the better.
It's amazing to think that there are three human beings up there every hour of every day. Right now there are three guys living on station, working on the equipment itself and on scientific experiments that are part of their long-duration flights. They are typically there for four to six months at a time. For most of that trip they won't see another human being. The crew that is up there right now has been there since December and we will be the first people they see, in April.
The purpose of the lecture was to familiarize Roberto and me with the normal working routine. Yuri has already spent six months up there as a member of the first station crew, so there's no need for him to be part of such a class. We also invited Karl Prince, one of the crack Capetonians working on the project here in Russia and the man who will be my Flight Activities Officer (FAO) to sit in on the lecture. Karl will be coordinating the detailed daily schedule of science and comms activities so it will be critical for him to understand exactly how the station timetable works and how best to integrate our program with the ongoing crew program.
The station crew will be extremely busy when we arrive. They will have a series of big events in quick succession, right at the end of their flight. First, an unmanned Russian Progress cargo vehicle will arrive, then they have an EVA, then we arrive, then the shuttle arrives to replace them with the follow-on crew. Each of these things will have them working long hours. They probably won't have had a 'day off' in two months. So we have to be very careful to make it easy for them to have us as guests on board, or everyone might get tetchy.
The Progress will present the station crew with a particular challenge. It will be chock full of supplies and equipment for future experiments. The station crew has to unpack the Progress and find a reasonable place for every piece of food, lifesupport supply, equipment etc. The station is crammed to the brim with stuff, so finding a place for each item isn't easy. And of course, whenever somebody needs to find a piece of equipment they will not necessarily know where the crew put it. The original plan was to have a sexy database of everything on station, so that crew members would only have to punch in the name of the object they wanted to find out where it is. Ha. That crumbled pretty quickly, so much like Mir, finding anything on station is apparently a question of patience, luck and knowing who to ask. That could affect us directly, because I might arrive to find that all the science equipment we are sending up on the Progress has been packed into a million different places, and it could end up taking days just to FIND the stuff, let alone actually do the experiments. That's no joke. There are tons of stories of astronauts arriving for intense trips only to have to devote much of their time to finding equipment and getting it to work. It's just very, very hard to do the logistics. There's no easy way, and nobody has a better plan yet.
So on to the daily program. The station runs on GMT, also known as UTC (Universal Coordinated Time, it's misspelled in the abbreviation to appease the French, who could never of course accept GMT). The morning alarm goes off at 06h00, and the first thing that happens is a check of the station systems and alarms that have gone off during the night. Then we have an hour and a half for breakfast, loo and work preparations. The plan is to get a very detailed (minute-by-minute) program emailed up from Moscow to the station every night. So at this stage I hope to be able to sync that program to a Palm Pilot, and sync the palm clock to the most accurate station clock, so that the day's schedule down to the second will be pre-programmed. I'm terrible at watching the clock, so having a pre-programmed schedule with alarms is the only way we can think to give us a chance at getting everything done. This takes us to the morning conference call at 07h45. This is a joint conference call with the crew, Moscow Mission Control (Tsup) and Houston Mission Control. Now we'll get the final updates to the day plan, as well as any news or other briefings.
At 08h00 the work day begins, with a work period that lasts 2h30 until 10h30. Then we break for an hour of exercise and an hour of lunch. The second work period of 2h30 starts at 12h30, and then we have another hour of physical training. Dinner is at 16h00, followed by a final work period of 3 hours till 19h30. Before going to sleep the crew has 15 minutes to familiarize itself with the program for the following day, a final conference call, some time to prepare the food rations for the next day, and preparations for bed. Officially, the day ends at 21h30. Unofficially, the work often has to continue, and this is the time astronaughts and cosmonauts use to relax and enjoy the privilege of flying in space.
The more we look at it, the harder it seems to be to coordinate the day program. Karl is going to have his hands full.
Comms sessions are hardest of all. The station is moving at nearly 8km per second, so if we want to talk to someone in Johannesburg we have a very short window of opportunity. If I'm 10 seconds late, the station has moved 80km. A minute late, and we are nearly 500km further along. That means that every comms session has to be very precisely scheduled indeed. Especially if you think that we have to coordinate our schedule with the person on the ground - if they are late we have the same problem. Getting put on hold will never be as frustrating as when calling from space.
Next up are earth observation sessions for some of the experiments and for personal pleasure. Even from space, it's difficult to identify specific places at first. Many of the station crews have said it takes them two or three months to know their way around the world so that they can quickly get a reference point. Apparently 75% of the earth is covered with clouds at any given moment. In April we might have glorious views of Cape Town, or none at all during the entire flight. And the station itself doesn't tell you where you are. Of course it knows, somewhere in the bowels of it's computer system, but there's no sexy display. Apparently, the software the astronauts use on their laptops to show them where the ISS is at any time is very inaccurate. We are trying to find out about a handheld GPS device to sync with my laptop, or possibly getting a feed from the experimental GPS built into the station. To make matters worse, in a ten day flight we may only have two or three passes over a given point during daylight hours. Remember, half the world is in night-time all the time, and we circle the globe every 90 minutes, so we have 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a normal 24 hour day. Anyway, the point is that earth observation sessions can't really be planned months in advance. First, we don't know the station orbit very accurately months in advance, especially since there will be dockings and EVA's between now and then that will definitely change the orbital altitude of the station. Second, we don't know what weather will be like on the ground. And third, we don't know what other experiments will need access to the viewing ports at the same time. Karl will get that info to me during the night before. We hope.
Finally, the scientific sessions need to be worked in such a way that they use night-time orbits to the greatest extent possible. We have a rough idea already when these will be, as the station orbit won't change so much between now and then, and of course the Earth's rotation is pretty predictable. We will try to get the science schedule in place well before the launch. But even that is hostage to the speed at which we can locate equipment that has been stored all over the station, and get it to work in space as expected. It's going to be a rush.
I'm really the worst possible person to run a precision operation up there. Shit, on EARTH it takes me an hour to get up in the mornings, I'm usually half-way through brushing my teeth when I remember that I had been shaving got distracted and put the razor down somewhere... it then takes me ages to find the razor on top of the microwave, where I'd left it because I was trying to find a faster way to do eggs in the morning, which I'd thought of while shaving. Whew. Basically I'm a major losskop and the idea of being 2,500 km past the target if I'm 5 minutes late is more than a little daunting. Even in the Soyuz I'm battling to keep up. I have to remember the time of each comms session start and end, and track the location of the Soyuz, and remember to update the nav system each time we alter the orbit, and remember... tons. All this while trying to follow Roberto and Yuri's actions on the propulsions system, which I haven't been trained on, because every now and then I have to flick a switch on my control panels in sync with one of their operations. It's quite a ride. For someone who spends large amounts of time daydreaming, this is quite a challenge. Karl will have his work cut out for him!