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In my “spare time” I work as a full-time translator and interpreter for NASA’s International Space Station Program. Among the many marvelous secrets and surprises that lurk in the recesses of rocket science and the far corners of the near-Earth orbit, one thing about this program always stands out: the constant juxtaposition of the macro and micro.

Let me elaborate. The ISS is a 450 metric ton behemoth orbiting 16 times around the Earth each day. Billions of dollars, effort from hundreds of thousands of people, miles of cables, thousands of pounds of equipment are put into the station each year. At the same time, the station is a finely tuned work of art, a mobile dangling on a continuously changing center of mass, a fragile entity carrying in its belly an even more ephemeral crew. And the specialists who dream it, design it, build it and breathe life into it move from the macro to the micro with astonishing ease.

Take for instance the water specialists. At any given moment, the International Space Station has on it over one ton of water. Hundreds of liters are brought up by the Russian cargo vehicles, then the water is consumed by humans, used in cooling loops on the interior of the station, sweated and peed back out, processed and drunk again, or used as technical water in experiments, and so forth. The specialists may be discussing these large quantities of H2O, and then seamlessly transition to micro-liters of distillate or micrograms per liter of total organic compounds present in the liquid. The biologists who monitor the water quality talk about the number of CFU’s (colony-forming units) found in potable water, and are pleased if there are less than ten of these in any given sample. As an aside, CFU’s refer to harmful bacteria. The chemists’ work also thrives in the micro-units. How many micro-liters of sodium nitrate? How many micrograms per milliliter of the heavy metals…

A similar ability to zoom in and out a thousand-fold is exhibited by the rendez-vous and docking folks. On an average orbit, the space station flies at a speed of 17,239 mph, circling around the Earth almost 16 times daily. To be clear: this is fast. Very very fast. To think – at this speed the people working for the Space Station Program around the world manage to launch giant space vehicles, have them catch up to the station, and perform a gentle docking. To make this happen, the minutest details have to be addressed. For instance, usually a docking window, (the time where a docking is possible) is just a few minutes long. Multiple constraints drive this window to such a ridiculously small amount of time. They include the need for the perfect lighting (the cameras that tell ground control and the crew how the approach of the vehicle is going need to not be facing the sun, but need to have light, at a certain ideal angle), the availability of satellite comm. and ground sites which receive telemetry, wakefulness of crew, correct position of the station solar arrays, and so on. So again: the station’s flying at 17,000 miles, and a vehicle has to catch up to it, maneuver just so, and dock within a 5-10 minute window.

The powerful wings of the station, the so-called truss segments, extend to both sides of the pressurized modules and span the area of a football field. The strong steel construction holds the solar panels which collect and help generate enough electricity to feed the entire station. A structure seemingly so robust and yet, a single, targeted hit with a pebble-sized micrometeoroid and the entire station will go to vacuum in a matter of hours. The crew will have to depart immediately, and the whirring, living organism, with ammonia and current running through its cooling loops and cables, with gigabytes of memory stored on the 100+ computers onboard, with the hundreds of thousands of man-hours lovingly invested in it – will turn to a lifeless chunk of metal drifting aimlessly through space.

The engineers, designers, physicists, technicians, programmers, flight controllers and others who work the program do miraculous things daily. They are like general physicians who can assess the wellbeing of the entire person, and also just happen to know the person’s entire genetic makeup, know the names of the 40 bones in each foot, the number of vertebrae on his back, the number of hairs on his head. And if you ask them, they’ll even tell you by name the hundreds of micro-organisms happily dwelling in this person’s gut.


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.”

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