Mark Shuttleworth - February 28, 2002: First fitting - Some days are so surreal over here. After a blissful evening in the banya and strolling through the crisp forests in the moonlight, I was bundled into a Star City bus for the bumpy journey around Moscow to the company that produces the customised space suits and survival gear for my first fitting.
So here we are, bouncing around in the back of a minibus that looks and feels pretty much identical to the taxis that toot-toot their way around Cape Town. Identical. Except this one has a steering wheel, and the words “Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre” instead of “SexyBoy” on the paintwork.
Outside is a Russian mixture of beauty and poverty. Tiny green gingerbread houses - dachas - with delicate wooden lacework around their eaves and windows line the roads in the suburbs. A fine sprinkling of snow covers everything. In each village is at least one Orthodox church with a golden cupola and brightly painted exterior. Women snugly wrapped in fur stand at the bus stops waiting for their ride into Moscow. Men huddle around their ice-fishing holes on the rivers and lakes.
Interspersed in all of this are the burnt-out cars and squat, ugly factories with their smokestacks and broken windows. Vast stretches of wasteland and rubbish dumps compete with postcard picturesque. The road is terrible, traffic isn't too bad but inside our bus the mood is festive even if the air is atrocious.
The old MP3's are working their random-selection magic again ... Dave Matthews’s “Satellite” and U2's “In a little while” (“A man dreams one day to fly/A man takes a rocket ship/into the sky/lives on a star that's dying in the night') set the scene perfectly, then Jewel's 'Who will save your soul?' puts a downer on the occasion. Oh well. That's what the suit is for. Paul Simon's “Under African Skies” puts us back in the game.
If we were having a really bad day up there, we'd have depressurisation and we'd have to come back home asap. The suits are designed to keep us alive for about two hours, which would hopefully be enough to get back into the atmosphere. We have enough oxygen to last a bit longer, but apparently the constraint is heat exhaustion. Without any air in the cockpit, there is no convection to draw heat away from the body, so you get very hot very quickly. It can't be too comfy. I remember the sea-survival training, when our pulse climbed to 180 simply because of heat exhaustion while we were donning the cold-weather kit inside the capsule while bobbing around on the Black Sea. That was a treat.
As part of the suit fitting, then, we have to be able to spend two hours under pressure in the suit, lying in the same position that we use when crammed into Soyuz. This is probably the one part of the training drill that is universally disliked by all the astronauts. The simple truth is that there is no way to enjoy a tightly pressurised suit cutting so deeply into the back of your knees that you lose all feeling in your feet within a few minutes.
Roberto told me he was nearly bleeding by the end of his two-hour stint. And we have to do this not once, but twice - the second time in a vacuum chamber with the air sucked out around you. The only pleasant thing about it is the fact that we do this with our custom-moulded seat liners, so at least the seat is more comfortable than the simulator. We often have fire emergencies in the simulator, which usually requires deliberate depressurisation, so I've had to sit in the sim with an inflated suit on numerous occasions. But not for two hours. Sometimes it takes a while to be able to move your feet afterwards.
The good news is that the suit fits very snugly. They will need to make a few tweaks and modifications, because I lost blood circulation in my legs too quickly, but at least the suit isn't too small or too large by a significant margin. Oleg, one of the cosmonauts, couldn't get INTO his suit. Apparently they lost 8cm somewhere, and he's trying to figure out what they plan to cut off to make him fit the suit.
This week we also had a sim run with Genna and Oleg, my backup crew. We only have two runs together in the training schedule, so I'm glad the first one went very well indeed. It's interesting to work with different crews, as they have very different styles. Also, it's interesting to work with an all-Russian commander and flight engineer... there's a lot more intricate discussion of the off-nominal situations that are thrown at us, which is a great way to expand the vocab. They also did a lot more checking of various parameters that are not in the flight documentation, which keeps me on my toes.
This morning it was snowing a blizzard and there was no hot water in the Prophy, so it was back to that favourite tradition - the Star City cold shower. Very refreshing. The water here is pumped up from 300m underneath the ground so it is really, really cold. Apparently there's none elsewhere in Star City either. Everyone is going to be very grumpy in Zvyozdny if they don't turn it on again before Monday.