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Captain's log

Mark Shuttleworth - February 27, 2002: Home is where the silver trees are - Wow, I'm out of date on the Logs. Really out of date. It's been three weeks. A fair amount has happened and unfortunately I'm not going to be able to write it all up particularly well, but I'll try to catch some of the highlights and lowlights.

Roberto and I had a test together on the ISS electrical system. We both need only a very rudimentary understanding of the electrical infrastructure of the Russian segment - how to turn lights on and off, where the plugs are situated and how to use them, and how power is distributed to the plugs and lights from the central power system.

The first few lectures of this stuff were blinders - hours poring over circuit diagrams covered in Russian abbreviations - but in practise the work is pretty straightforward. There are some gotchas, such as sets of switches in series that are not obviously related but which need to be operated together, and the famous "million-dollar notebook light switch". The Service Module has tons more in the way of infrastructure than the FGB ("Functional Cargo Block", go figure) so we spent most of the time there. As long as everything works as advertised, we will be able to get by without too much help from the expedition crew, which is a good thing. But I suspect that itís going to take us a while to translate the pristine training facility experience into practical independence on station. Thank God for Yuri.

We also had a hairy week of visa chaos, where at one stage I thought the wheels would come off our Moscow operation altogether. Dale and Karl had been unable to get multiple-entry visas before coming, so they had to return to Cape Town when their tourist visas expired. And of course, their multiple-entries had not come through before they needed to leave, so we really didn't know when they would be able to return. All this happened in the crucial last week of the Progress payload handover. Fortunately, they had worked like Trojans for the preceding couple of weeks and everything was in the best possible shape for them to be away. And fortunately the visas came through within a few days, so they were only away for one week.

Payload time

Our Progress payload has been sent to Baikonur for packing and will be headed to the ISS as planned. Hopefully any snafu's will be addressed through the remaining few grams we have on our Soyuz payload. I'd like to thank Dale and Karl for their heroic effort in getting all the payload for science, photography and "cultural exchange" together and certified in record time.

Since the Soyuz and ISS systems training is nearly done, we are starting to work on some less engineering-oriented subjects. All of us are being trained to use the still and video cameras on board the station. It's a tough environment in which to shoot photos - and none of us are photographic experts. Being a snap-o-matic fan when it comes to cameras (point-and-shoot with minimal human interference has always worked best for me). I'm a bit daunted at the professional cameras we'll have to shoot with while up there - the Nikon F5, Kodak 760, and Nikon D1X. Altogether too many knobs, dials, and buttons for my liking on a camera. But we'll do the best we can. Will take a snap-o-matic just in case.

We've also had more ISS life-support training: food, fire, water. I think I've described some of the space food already. Am looking forward to trying the NASA food items. The water system is a beaut. The water generally comes from shuttle fuel cells, then is treated in different ways, depending on its purpose. There is "potable" water, and "technical" water, and numerous variations on those themes, together with a bewildering number of pumps, pipes and tanks, all of which conspire to ensure that there should always be a reliable source of water on station. Of course, there is also the recycled water, which comes from condensation in the air-cooling system. It's not recycled from urine, but from breath and sweat, and that's generally the water we use for cooking. The same system gives us heated water - it's got to be the world's most expensive kettle. And it's more difficult to operate than a Korean microwave. My favourite is having to count pumps of the internal piston for any doses of hot water over 300ml.

The Russian fire extinguishers have one major advantage over those from NASA - they've been used in space. We know of at least one major fire that broke out on Mir, and the fire extinguishers in the Russian Service Module and FGB are identical to those on Mir at the time. They are armed as soon as you pull them from their brackets (which means that storing and replacing them is a pain as they have to be unbolted from the wall, complete with fixtures) and are designed for use on open flames as well as on sources of smoke. They produce a pretty impressive foam jet. Hell, we used to have a lot of fun with the boarding-school fire extinguishers at the end of the year, I bet you could REALLY have a blast in zero-G. Hopefully we don't get to use them professionally.

Early start

One of the reasons for the lack of log action has been a complete change in day planning. Instead of staying up till 2am, I've been talked into exercise early in the morning, which has meant two things. First, I've been absolutely exhausted after the day is finished, and crashing earlier that I have in years. Second, we've been getting up around 6am for an intensive gym session five days a week. The best thing about all of this is that I'm almost awake during the day for lessons. Some weeks here in Star City, with the serious sleep deprivation, I've felt like the living dead. The past two weeks have been the most awake during the day, ever, but sadly it's come at the price of evening email action, including logs. Now that Karen has gone back to Cape Town for a few weeks we'll have to see if the exercise momentum can be maintained. And we are already missing the SUPERB culinary skills that our UCT Sports Science Institute colleagues brought to Star City. Back to boy food.

The sim sessions have been getting better and better. Roberto has been working like a man possessed, and it's all I can do to keep up with him and Yuri when smoke fills the cockpit, the engines fail, the various sensors malfunction and tanks of oxygen develop inexplicable leaks. At least pages are no longer flying out of my board documentation whenever we have a depressurisation. We came up with the great plan of recording the comms and cockpit dialogue for one of the sessions, and giving that to my Russian teacher. So now we are focused less on Pushkin and more on the peculiarities of Russian military conversational style. Although my Russian teacher still can't resist the odd gem from Pushkin or Tolstoy ... like "the less we love a woman, the more we appeal to her". How Russian.

We've also started dedicated training for our scientific programmes. Yuri, as well as the two members of our backup crew, Yevgeny and Oleg, all have to be trained as backups for my experiments. I have to be trained as a backup on some of the other experiments. The idea is that there will be at least two people trained to handle any experiment, no matter who flies on that day. Having watched the selection of the South African experiments, it was fascinating to see how the Russians have documented and enhanced our programme. They have taken each step of the science programme and produced detailed flight documentation for the cosmonaut who has to do the work. Generally that will be me, but the documentation and training are there for all the cosmonauts in case I'm not able to do the work. The Russians have done us proud thus far ... they have brought a vast amount of experience to the project, and suddenly these academic exercises look as though they really will happen.

Homesick

One of the most moving experiences for me in the past three weeks was a two-hour lecture by a Star City scientist on the geography, oceanography, climatology and "plantology" (sorry, the word escapes me, uggh) of South Africa. The amount of research and detail that had gone into that two-hour lecture was phenomenal. It was clear to me that there are many Russian scientists who are taking a close interest in the science that we have brought here, and I hope that the collaboration and co-operation that we have begun will continue long after this flight.

There's something surreal about remembering hikes on the Ou Kaapse Weg while a Russian scientists describes silver trees and their sensitivity to environmental change, and why he'd like you to photograph "the forests of silver trees" from space. It makes me think of the times we played on the mountain as kids, and while it's not really about the silver trees, of the years when they first cut down the pines on the slopes of Table Mountain so that the mountain looked as though it was covered with pins scattered from some giant sewing accident. I could almost smell the fynbos here in Russia.

The list went on an on... the use of water on the Orange River, the silt bed at the Orange River mouth, the shipping and pollution on the South Coast, the coal pollution of the Southern Transvaal, the Benguela and Mozambique currents, fynbos and the Cape fold mountains, the Limpopo and Zambezi, the Kalahari, Agulhas and the fisheries of the West Coast and Agulhas Bank, the Kruger Park and TFCA. He told the story of Valerie Rumin, one of the best-known cosmonauts who is now a senior manager at Energia, and who has worked on some of the tougher contractual issues that I've had to resolve, describing the "red roofs of Cape Town" (Oranjezicht?) as seen from space. How can that NOT bring a lump to one's throat?

We've also had plenty of good times.

The last time we hit the banya, for example, we ended up miscalculating (OK, truth be told, I miscalculated) a little on the water front ... all those darn Hurricanes from Shep's Bar didn't help at all. I remember being vaguely concerned about electrocution once there was a small lake under the heating element and we could actually HEAR the arcing of the electricity near the pool through which we were all sloshing into and out of the sauna. Uggh. Makes me shudder just to think of what could have happened. Now when we make a banya booking we generally get the curious question, "Will any RUSSIANS be joining you?"

There are some EXTREMELY funny pictures of Dale and Karen in Shep's Bar trying out some of the local vodka and a fighter pilot helmet, taken on Friday night. I believe they are posted on the site if you are willing to hunt for them (here's a big clue - check out Dale and Karen's recent logs ;-). It's definitely worth the effort.

Last night (it was a holiday here in Russia... "Men's Day") the four of us played soccer on the lake. It was hilarious. Trying to run after the ball is almost impossible because one has no traction to start ... or to stop, so everything happens in this surreal slow motion. Rapid changes of direction are severely punished by the law of momentum conservation. We were playing with the huge gym balloon instead of a soccer ball, which adds a whole new comic dimension. This, combined with a few spectacular slips, slides and tumbles, had us in stitches and thoroughly exhausted by the close of play. Nothing was broken in the process. Luckily no one caught the game on camera, but there are also a few post-game pics floating around the Net, I'm told.

Tonight was another banya night, this time just Dale, Karl and me, and I must say it was one of the best banyas to date. Starting sober is a big advantage. Afterwards, we wandered out onto the lake to find the swimming hole in the ice that we're going to try out next time instead of the indoor plunge pool. The evening was just achingly beautiful - a crystal-clear winter's night, the stars burning with defiant resolve despite the bitter temperature, Orion head-up (as opposed to his Southern-hemisphere headfirst-fall) and a full moon. Imagine the white trunks of birch trees clearly lit up by the magnificent moon, and the angel's tinkling of a billion snow crystals flying away with every step, as we stroll through the forest onto the lake itself. It was an exquisite moment. The three of us were in fits of laughter when Dale held up a speedo that had frozen solid in the walk between the banya and the Prophy (10 minutes at most). Life is too short indeed.

 
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