Mark Shuttleworth - April 03, 2002: Clocking docking sims - This morning started with a manual docking exam for the crew. Roberto and Yuri have been working furiously over the past few months in the docking sim. I've never had any training on the docking systems, since this is limited to the left and centre seats, so it was mostly a chance for me to practise sleeping with my knees around my ears.
Generally, they try to arrange things so that we dock during a stretch of sunshine, to illuminate the docking port clearly. In some off-nominal situations like a night docking, I have to turn on the headlights for the Soyuz and switch between lenses on the docking camera so Yuri can see the station clearly. Roberto has a far more exciting job - he gets to point the laser range-finder out of the window to estimate the range and approach speed in the event of a failure of some of the automatic docking equipment.
In fact, the Soyuz should be able to dock all by itself. It has a fully automated docking system, which works very well most of the time. All of this training and the exam is to ensure that we'll be able to dock manually if that equipment - and the redundant backup system - fails. Yuri has done one manual docking previously, when he was commander of Mir.
The exam consists of a series of “modes”, each of which is a docking under different circumstances. For example, they might make us dock at night, or throw different combinations of equipment failures at us. And they can make us dock to different docking ports on the International Space Station (ISS), and make us approach from different angles. A number of options are pre-generated, and put into a set of envelopes. When we arrive for the exam, we have to pick one of the envelopes, and the whole crew signs it. That envelope is opened, and we are given the tests specified inside. Quite a lucky dip.
On Tuesday, we had a similar exam for the rendezvous. This is the portion of the approach from 5000m (5km) down to 150m. Wednesday’s test was for the actual docking - from 150m to the connection of our docking probe to the ISS docking cone. In both cases, Yuri did an exceptional job flying us to target while using the minimum amount of propellant (fuel). It's clear he's been doing this for more than a decade.
The docking is quite an astonishing feat, when you think that two large pieces of equipment that are travelling at 30 000km/h have to connect precisely, with a closing speed that does not exceed 15cm/s. Even more impressive is a shuttle docking, because the shuttle and the ISS both weigh in excess of 100 tons. By contrast, the Soyuz, which we will fly, weighs only seven tons. Still, the guys in the ISS will be happy to know that Yuri has done this before, because seven tons of metal approaching rapidly would make any astronaut nervous.
Next up, we had some measurements for the University of Cape Town (UCT) sports-science experiment, which involved maximum strength (or lack thereof) tests on my right leg. These tests give us some baseline data that we can compare before and after the flight as part of their research. They want to test, in particular, how strong the muscles in that leg are that resist an external force. Basically, it means being strapped into a piece of heavy machinery so tightly that it's impossible to move. The machine then bends my leg hard and fast, and I have to resist. It also measures strength, when I have to try to move the machine as quickly as possible and it resists.
The tough bit is the fatigue test, which requires 50 successive pushes and pulls, at which point I was pretty much finished, and walking in circles. If they tested both legs I'd barely be able to walk, but at least I could stagger straight. Yuri Koryak, the Russian doctor who works with the equipment, gets very involved, telling me to PUUUUSSSSHHHH, so much so that he was almost as buggered as I was afterwards. It's nice to share the pain.
After lunch, we did another cool test for a Russian science experiment. This one involves applying a set of shocks to the leg muscles and seeing how they react. They measure both the speed of the nervous and muscular response, and the strength of the contraction induced by the shock. Again, this involves the poor right leg (which is now wondering why it was volunteered for this guinea-pig stuff) being strapped into an ancient harness, but this time some nasty-looking electrodes are applied, too. Some of the electrodes measure the signals that shoot along the nerves in response to the shocks, but the big ones are there to pump electricity through my leg. The Green Mile springs to mind. Yuri (the same doctor) seems thrilled with the pictures he brought up on the oscilloscope... good to know the old nerves are responsive.
Most of the tests involve very short pulses of current... of the order of a microsecond or two. The grand finale is when the current is switched for 500 milliseconds... and the force generated by the contracting leg is measured. This turns out to be about 40% more than the max voluntary force - the maximum force the cosmonaut can generate when trying to pull on the muscle as hard as possible. All I can say is I'm now eternally grateful for trip switches, because being electrocuted is only fun for a millisecond. Pete should have some great pics of this up on the site shortly. Yuri gets to do this one too, so we had a good laugh when we saw each other limping in the parking lot.
Then - my worst - vestibular training. This involves that horrible rotating chair, and trying to get sick and then keep going for the required amount of time. They keep telling me this is a good thing, but none of the cosmonauts seem to agree. After a few minutes on the chair I'm in a cold sweat, but we got through the session without having to stop for re-launching. Pete likes the green complexion he gets on camera, though. Check out the "fragile" pic in the medical testing gallery.
And finally, feeling green at the gills, we spent a couple of hours working through the landing and search-and-rescue procedures. The military team responsible for locating the capsule in the desert, and retrieving the cosmonauts, came in to Star City to make a presentation and meet with the crew. To visualise the Kazakh steppes, think of the Karoo without the koppies. Or the sheep. Or the dorpe. Scatter in a few camels. Voila. The odds are that we won't land on a hill, since there aren't any for a long, long way from the target landing site. Watching footage of the explosive retro-rockets fire on touchdown is very impressive, however... I guess they save the best for last around here too.
Minor drama amongst the SA away team here this evening, with ANOTHER fender-bender car accident. Seems to be part of the adventure over here. Everyone's fine but it meant a major logistical rearrangement to get them to the World Cup swimming championship in Moscow, to which they were all very kindly invited by the SA team. I couldn't risk an international crowd though, as we're in semi-quarantine already. Formal quarantine starts very soon. Dale, Karen & Nicolette are going to look great in surgical masks.