Mark Shuttleworth - January 15, 2002: gravity? optional - Karen Sharwood, the lead scientist on the cardiology experiment, has come to Moscow specially for the zero-g flight which we knew was scheduled to happen this week. The plan was to gather baseline data on heart rate during the zero-g flight using the Polar equipment that her land-based research has used. Then, on a subsequent flight, we could gather the same data using a version of the Russian equipment that is on the ISS, and which will be used to gather the experimental heart rate data during the space flight. This way, we'd have a link from the Polar equipment to the Russian equipment which could be used to help calibrate the results of the experiment.
Originally there were four zero-g flights in the training program, but apparently this has now been cut to three, and I'd already had one. So we only had two flights left, and needed to get data on both flights. This is critical to the cardiology experiment project plan.
Sure enough, the program for the week included a zero-g flight on Tuesday. But to our surprise, it also included the final zero-g flight on Thursday. And we hadn't yet had a chance to arrange for the use of the Russian equipment for the subsequent flight, which wasn't expected to occur for a few weeks. So now we had to get the Polar data on Tuesday and arrange for the Russian equipment to be included on the flight on Thursday.
That was the plan on Sunday.
At the last minute on Monday, however, the Russian doctors decided Karen wasn't fit to fly on the weightlessness flight, which meant we'd be trying to gather scientific data without the scientist. We really needed her on the flight to monitor the equipment and ensure that we were getting good data. As always, it wasn't at all clear WHY Karen had been disallowed. So there was a flurry of negotiating late on Monday night. We offered to cover the cost of a subsequent flight if Karen's presence caused the early termination of the zero-g training for any reason at all. By midnight on Monday we were pretty certain that Karen would fly. Not so. On Tuesday morning, as the bus arrived to take us to Chkalovsky airbase for the flight, one of the senior Star City economic officers arrived to apologise that she wouldn't be allowed to fly. Fine, we said, if that's the case, then Star City needs to accept responsibility for the data collection. If the experiment had a problem, they'd need to put on a special flight so we could get the data.
We climbed on the bus for the cold drive out to Chkalovsky, which is the military base close to Star City from which the Russian nuclear command-and-control air transports are supposed to fly. It's surreal driving down the runway past the hulks of Russian planes of every description, from the tiny military trainer jets to the vast Antonov transports. There are planes that clearly have electronic intelligence functions, attack jets, bombers and transports scattered across the snow-swept base. We saw them clearing snow and ice from the runway with a jet engine mounted to the front of a tractor... noisy but very effective! After a brief stop to collect the parachutes we arrived at the Ilyushin-76 that is our training ground for weightlessness.
I've been through this drill twice before. We start with the parachute fitting and check, then the chutes are stashed close to the emergency exits in case we need them during the flight. It isn't exactly clear what the point of the parachutes is. I'm not sure how we'll have time to find them, put them on and jump if it's ever necessary, especially if the plane is in trouble. Cycling between zero and two G's can't be good for a plane, but if it did fail, surely it would be catastrophically rather than slightly? Anyhow, I suppose it's nice to know they are there. There's quite a festive mood amongst the instructors. We have relatively few people in the hold, about 12 in all. There will be plenty of space to fly around.
Next we wire up the Polar. The chest strap gets some additional body tape to keep it in place, then the watch goes into the chest pocket of my flight suit to keep it close to the transmitter and minimize interference. We have a plan to hold the watch close to my chest while donning the space suit later, and have attached a loop of bandage tape to the front of the space suit that will keep the watch in a good place during the parabolas while I'm dressed in the suit. It's not too cold, probably minus two or three, so the thermal underwear was a bad idea. It feels a bit awkward under the flight suit, and with the jet auxiliary power unit blasting hot air into the hold it's going to get toasty quickly. Karen shows the flight surgeon and I how to operate the watch... it couldn't be simpler. So we thought.
I should describe the plane. It's a big cargo transport... the interior is probably 4,5m wide by 3,5m high. We flew down to the Black Sea in it last year with a microbus and Soyuz capsule in the hold. But there's nothing in the hold now, and there are mattresses strapped to the floor. Along the top of each wall is a row of very bright lights for the video operators who record every move for post-flight debriefing. There's also a handlebar at waist height that runs down each wall. There are a few pictures of the interior on this site.
Everybody lies on the floor of the hold for takeoff. There are no windows in the hold section, so it's difficult to guage the takeoff speed, or even to know your altitude and attitude at any stage of the flight. Just as well too, because it isn't natural to see the earth do things out the window that it does during a zero-g flight.
After about 30 minutes of flight we are cleared for the zero-g parabolas. They have to take place over unpopulated areas of the countryside, just in case. We have the standard program of ten parabolas (I believe NASA does 40, which is guaranteed to make ANYBODY very sick). Before each parabola the pilot does a quick dip to induce sub-one G's, and everybody jumps up and down. Feels like moonwalking.
Now a bit of physics. We aren't going to eliminate gravity, just make its effect - weight - vanish for a few seconds. If you were shot out of a cannon without wind resistance you would follow a parabolic path through the sky. The pilot is going to fly the plane in exactly that path, and we will be cannonballs floating around, weightless, inside the hold of the plane. Cool. So to get the ball rolling the pilot pulls back on the stick and points the nose of the plane into the sky. Inside the hold we can't sense that because there are no windows. We just feel ourselves pressed hard into the mattresses as we pull nearly 2 g's ("twice the normal force of gravity"). That means that someone who normally weights 80kgs is now feeling as if they weigh 160kgs. All the blood is pushed to the floor. I make the big mistake of standing up during this initial part - usually we start off lying down but I was a bit relaxed and not thinking about it. Standing up is silly, because the blood rushes to your feet making you feel faint. Generally we'd lie down or sit down to minimise the loss of blood in the brain during the increased G-force. And to make it worse, I'm standing away from the wall of the plane. There's a buffet of turbulence and I land on my butt really hard at 2 G's. Really, really hard. I've gone and dinged my lower back on the first parabola, which was genuinely stupid. So lying there I'm half laughing, half flustered, and we are seconds away from the first parabola. Boris, my instructor, leans over to check everything's OK but then the pilot throws the stick forward, and the nose of the plane, which was pointed up into the sky, drops quickly to send us into the parabola, and weightlessness.
So there's no time to feel an idiot for too long.
In the first parabola, we are going to repeat one of the exercises from my previous zero-g flight, the floor-to-ceiling push. The idea is to teach people to use their arms like legs. In space, to float from one place to another your have to push off one surface and float across. The problem is that we are used to pushing hard with our legs, which normally are carrying our full weight, and softly with our arms, which are just used for stabilization on earth. And in space, one push is as good as another. So first-time cosmonauts and astronauts tend to push too hard with their legs, then find themselves crashing ungracefully into the opposite wall. That's what I did the first time we did this exercise, but this time it's easy and I'm quickly floating up from the floor to the ceiling and back. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the Russian instructors give excellent tips on how to stay stable while floating, and how to get the right amount of force in the right direction. Believe me, it doesn't help to try to swim to the ceiling.
It goes very well this time, so in the second parabola Boris asks me to do an exercise that we hadn't expected to get to in this flight: floor-to-ceiling with 180-degree rotation. This means pushing off from the floor with your feet, but introducing a bit of a twist so that you hit the ceiling with your feet rather than with your hands. It's actually pretty straightforward. The trick is to give with your feet on impact, absorbing the impact by bending your knees instead of bouncing off the ceiling, because if you have stiff legs when your feet hit the roof you will end up dangling in no-man's land between the floor and the ceiling, with nothing to push off. That's not good. First, you look silly. Second, the temptation to swim inevitably leads to you giving your instructor a hefty boot on the snozz, which makes for poor teacher-pupil relations. Boris has a thick skin, but did ask me to wear soft shoes, just in case.
In the third parabola we're putting on the space suit, 'Skafander' in Russian. This is the first time I've done it in weightlessness. Before the parabola we line up the suit on the floor of the plane, sitting next to it. As soon as the parabola starts Boris lifts me into no-mans land, hovering in the middle of the plane, and holds me steady as I try to pull on the suit. The only difficulty comes from the feet of the suit, which quickly get twisted if you try to kick the legs straight. It takes two parabolas to get the suit on - the first for the legs, and the second for the upper body. In general I think it's easier to don the suit in weightlessness than on the ground.
In the fifth parabola we try the easiest exercise, this time in the suit. This involves flying from wall to wall in the hold. The waist-height handrail is critical here. You grab it and lift your feet up behind your bum, pointing your head in the direction of the opposite wall, then push off with your feet. On the other side you try to grab the handrail before crashing into the wall, then use that to stabilize yourself and turn around for the next push. Side to side. In the normal flight suit, which has great freedom of motion for the legs and arms, this is dead easy (barring the occasional snafu the results in a headfirst crash into the wall). But in the suit, I found it much more difficult. There's very limited motion in the space suit, because it's designed to be used only during launch and descent, when we are tightly strapped into the Soyuz seats. In particular, it's much more difficult to get one's feet up on the wall for a good sendoff, and even more tricky to reach out with the hands to grab the approaching handrail. So the fifth parabola is a bit of a disaster, I'm flailing around in space like a fish out of water. Or even out of land. But Boris just suggests quietly to try again, and during the sixth parabola it seems easier again. The trick seems to be patience. In space, everything goes more slowly. I've been told that a reasonable time estimate for intricate work is triple the time on earth. Want to plan to plug in a computer, do some work, and pack up? Figure out how long it would take you on earth and multiply by three. That's playing havoc with the logistical planning for the science programme, because we just don't know how long it will take to get basic things done.
In the seventh parabola I have to work my way around the hold, using a rope that's attached in four places. The idea is to try and stay stable, using just two hands to navigate along the rope. Easy enough, except that there are these huge (1000W) lights on either side of the plane that get extremely hot, so navigating past them is a tad delicate.
So by now we have finished all the exercises planned for the flight, and it's time to play around a little. On the eighth parabola Boris throws me the length of the plane towards a cameraman and one of the other trainers, and the aim is to try to stay horizontal instead of twisting around. Oops. I end up drifting up to the roof, and the parabola comes to an end before I can get to the floor. Thud. On the ninth we repeat the exercise a little more successfully.
But now the queasiness in my stomache escalates dramatically. I've managed to get through the previous two flights without being sick. Not so lucky this time. And like on that damn motion sickness chair, the moment I think about being sick, I get a dry mouth and a sudden cold sweat, and I'm asking Boris for a packet. He starts checking his pockets but the flight surgeon is over in a flash with a sickbag. Amazingly, after throwing up I feel immediately better. If I feel sick on the actual flight I guess the best plan is jsut to throw up as quickly and painlessly as possible, because it brings immediate relief. Oh well, the NASA guys don't call it the vomit comet for nothing. Shit, nine parabolas, if only I could have held on for one more! We'll have to see how the next flight goes.
The tenth parabola is just more fun and games, and then everyone lies down exhausted on the mattresses for the flight back to Chkalovsky. I'm a little bit queasy, but it's normal for everyone to look a little green afterwards.
Later in the afternoon I have an ISS computer interfaces lecture, and then physical training. Karen comes to the physical training session (PT after a zero-g flight is something to behold) with some very bad news: we got garbage for data during the flight. Nothing, nada, nichevo. Neither of us is sure why - I might have done something dumb with the Polar, or there might have been electronic interference from all the other equipment in the plane, or the watch/strap might be faulty. Anyway, this is exactly the scenario I DIDN'T want to happen - now I have to ask Star City to find a way to get us the baseline bridge data. That's going to go down like a lead balloon. We've checked and rechecked the data but no luck. Damn. We will try to get data from both the Russian AND the Polar equipment on the next flight, if we can show on the ground there is no interference. Failing that we'll just have to hold Star City to the extra flight, since they wouldn't let Karen onto the plane.
In the evening Denis Yadrentsev, the great guy who plans the training program and who has had to deal with no end of difficulty from every angle, came along to report that the Thursday flight had been cancelled due to a problem with the plane. Lovely. Nice of someone to mention it AFTER we just flew loops in the sky with it.