The International Space Station

The voices are there even before you put the headset on.

The flight controller, EVA (extra vehicular activity) Task, Systems, Orlan suit specialist, Russian EVA lead, astronauts, cosmonauts, flight surgeons, Life Support Systems…their voices weave in and out, melody and counterpoint, a gurgling creek of information pouring across the many channels connecting individuals sitting in offices, on console, in flight control rooms, and levitating up on Station, whirring across the sky at a mind-numbing speed of 17,239 mph. And we are here too, a small, integral part of this web, sitting in the MPSR (the “mimpser”) on the third floor of Building 30, with our brains plugged into the virtual world of EVA support, and our eyes glued to the six flat screens showing different views of the International Space Station.

“We” are the EVA Task specialist from the US side, two Russian specialists who have come to support this Russian EVA from the Mission Control Center in Houston, and I – their interpreter. The two Russians on this side of the puddle play mainly a consultative and supportive role, answering questions, offering recommendations, making calls to TsUP Moscow if there is a need to relay something important to those leading the two cosmonauts performing the space walk.

With one ear I can hear the EVA Task specialist dictate data he observes on the many computer screens before him, to others listening on his channel: “Now they’re performing the leak-check of the PxO…the pressure has dropped to vacuum in DC1…they’re getting ready to egress…yes, wait for the call-out of the hatch opening before starting the timer…” With the other ear I zone in on channel S/G 1, and listen as the Russian EVA specialist sitting in the Mission Control Center in Moscow and leading this EVA gives his two crew members calm, crisp step-by-step instructions that I am sure they can recite in their sleep: “Alright guys, now you are going to remove the safety ring…make sure that your sublimators are on…go ahead and open the hatch when you are ready…”

The four of us sit, transfixed, looking up at the screens. There – real-time video showing a part of the Space Station, including most of the Russian Segment, a docked Soyuz vehicle, several deployed radiators, bits of solar array panels, antennae, hatches, grapple fixtures, and handrails, illuminated by several flood-lights, all on the flat, black backdrop of outer space. For a moment, I do not believe it is space. There is no visible motion, no stars. For all it’s worth, this could be a high-fidelity model of the station perched at center stage of some school auditorium, with a black velvet curtain behind it and an amateur white spot light glaring at it from offstage.

I am reminded of the ubiquitous photograph of the American flag on the moon. Conspiracy theorists have said that since the flag is seen to be “waving in the wind” while it is a known fact that there IS no wind on the moon (no atmosphere at all, for that matter), the landing on the moon was a hoax. But on close examination of the photograph one can see the outlines of plastic tubing stuck into the seam of the flag to keep it upright, and the crinkles on the flag revealing that it was more plastic than cloth.

This thought is gone as soon as it appears, and again I am peering into the screen, trying to see just some hint of “space-ness” in the image before me.

Then, with near hi-def crispness, the hatch opens. Cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratyev floats out and tethers himself to a near-by handrail. Oleg Skripochka follows. There is no epic soundtrack blasting in the background, no slow-motion zoom-in of our heroes. Only Dmitri’s stable voice, “We have egressed the hatch and are ready to start work according to the task outline.”

In response we hear from MCC-Moscow, “Good to hear, guys. Alright. Take a minute to look around…ready? Ok. Let’s get started.”