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Photograph by Liza Evans

When you work at night, sleeping schedules shift, lines between dream and wakefulness blur into one hazy continuum. After, you never quite know what happened, whether it really did or not.

Some time ago I was working with Russian EVA specialists who were visiting at the Mission Control Center to support a space walk. We’d sit for many hours in that gray, windowless building, straining painfully to understand conversations coming through the static of outer space. Mostly this happened at night, though in that building, you could never tell.

It was on one such night that I decided to stretch my limbs and go for a stroll. I made my way out of the logically elusive structure and into the damp, warm night air of a Houston summer. The earth’s guttural breath caressed me out of the harsh, rough sensations of the building, and lured me towards the green space in the middle of the space center complex.

There, a thick mist was lazing out of the lake, expanding in all directions, reaching out to me. I walked slowly towards the green, half-asleep, relishing the living sounds and sensations of the outdoors. Suddenly, a deer appeared out of the mist, head first. I could see his elaborate antlers and the hooves, submerged in grass. He glanced at me briefly, then turned his attention back to the reflective glass windows of the building he was standing next to.

I was awed by his pensive, slow gaze as he contemplated what I thought was his own reflection in the glass. For a while, we stood still. I – breathing in the moist magic of night, he – thinking his own existential thoughts while peering into the window. Eventually I yawned and he slowly backed into the mist, disappearing from view.

Intrigued, I walked towards the building and noticed, to my great surprise, a stuffed deer head, standing on the inside windowsill, clearly visible through the glass. I marveled at the intelligence of my deer, who had been looking not at his own reflection, but at the head of his fellow ungulate, immortalized and graceful, contemplating life and death, and the fate that awaits us all. “Imagine that…” I mumbled to myself, and turned back towards the mission control center and the stifling cold.

A while later we were walking with a couple of friends in that same part of the center. It was a bright, cheerful day, and I recalled to them my strange encounter with the deer. I timed the story just so, hoping to get to the punch line at the exact moment we would pass the window with the stuffed head. It would have been perfect, except the deer head was no longer there.

Several times I walked the entire length of the glass wall, looking for it, but it was not to be found. In fact, I could not even find the windowsill where it might have been placed…

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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