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On Assignment

Written by Kathy Sawyer

The new digs are only about 200 miles away, but they might as well be down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. It's a bizarre realm where human senses get thrown for a loop and the external world comes unglued. Things seem to disappear in odd ways, the exercise bicycle needs no seat, you can "set" the dining table on both sides, and massive tools can be held in place by rubber bands. A person gets steadily weaker, and yet can always lift a 250-pound spacesuit with a baby finger. A couch potato could watch a video while floating in a cloud of snack nuts, with a bag of rehydrated beverage drifting within reach.

"We get to see 16 sunrises every day," said U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd, commander of the three-man, U.S.-Russian crew that this week will become the first residents of the new International Space Station.

The crew blasted off early Tuesday morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. If all goes as planned, early Thursday (4:20 a.m. EST), the trio, known as Expedition One, will open a door and turn on the lights to begin a new chapter in human exploration.

Not that living in space is something new. The Russians have pioneered the art, maintaining a series of space stations over the last three decades culminating with Mir. Members of Expedition One have all visited space before. Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev has racked up a total of almost 16 months on four flights on Mir and the U.S. space shuttle, and colleague Yuri Gidzenko spent six months aboard Mir. Shepherd is the relative novice, with 440 hours (about 18 days) on three shuttle flights.

But Mir has been vacant since the last crew departed in June, and the aging outpost may never be occupied again. The United States hasn't had a full-time presence in orbit since the last crew left Skylab in 1974. The first crew members of the new station, like many space enthusiasts on the ground, regard the crossing of this threshold as the beginning of a more sustained and systematic planetwide approach to research in weightlessness and preparation for eventual human expansion into space. This time, they say, they're moving in for good.

"I'd say there's a decent chance that Oct. 30 may be the last day we don't have people in space," said John Curry, flight director for the long-controversial, multibillion-dollar project.

During their four-month tour, the space fliers will confront the same imperatives as pioneers on any forbidding frontier: survival, adaptation – and a lot of housekeeping. They will be living in a busy construction site as the nascent station continues to be built around them, even as its humming systems keep them alive. They expect to do a lot of trouble-shooting, but if past experience – their own and that of others – is any guide, they can assume that even the "routine" often will be surreal.

They will spend most of their time in a part of the station about the size of a Metro bus, and live by a creed of restraint – the kind achieved by vast quantities and networks of Velcro, straps and bungee cords. Every single item has to be tied down in some way to keep it from floating off. They may often find themselves with too many things in their hands and no way to put them down.

The "filters" in the brain that enable humans to perceive objects against a complicated background may not work the same as they do on Earth. A person, working with a visual system that evolved in gravity, is not accustomed to seeing pliers or a wrench floating one foot in front of his or her eyes. Therefore, such objects can become virtually invisible – until they hit you in the face.

There may also be a few collisions at first as the men try to move in three dimensions through the same narrow corridor simultaneously – arranging cargo, installing equipment and generally setting up shop. But veterans learn to maneuver like fish. After space fliers have adapted, in fact, they say acrobatic maneuvers – rolling, tumbling and spinning – become almost second nature.

They may have difficulty sleeping because of the sheer excitement of being up there, the noise levels in the close confines, and the absence of normal day-night cycles. As the space station whips around the planet 16 times a day, the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes.

Some have found that, because they are floating and there are no "pressure points," sleep is in some ways easier. With no need for a mattress or pillow, the astronauts simply anchor themselves with Velcro straps or the like.

The formal workday will run eight or nine hours. Their wake-up calls will come at about 1 a.m. EST, the work shift will start about 3:15 a.m. EST, and bedtime is scheduled for about 4:30 p.m. EST.

Much of the weekends "off" will be spent "cleaning up everything we did on previous week," Krikalev said. "In weightlessness, if you spill couple droplets of tea, it could stick somewhere on the ceiling and you need some time to clean it off and get station nice and clean."

For the weight-conscious, wags have pointed out that, as long as you stay in space, you can eat all you want and not gain an ounce. The onboard menu is a mix of Russian and American fare. For the first several days in weightlessness, almost half of all space travelers feel some queasiness. Once the body adjusts, the crew members can eat and digest food normally. In fact, many find they have healthy appetites in space, although, for weeks, the taste of food may be compromised by a lingering "stuffy-head feeling."

The crew's demanding schedule will have to accommodate regular periods of exercise on a treadmill and workouts with bungee cords. Astronauts in weightlessness lose bone mineral and muscle mass and undergo other physiological changes, growing steadily weaker without gravity to work against.

Crews are obliged to stay strong enough to be able to move the fingers of a pressurized spacesuit glove for the many day-long spacewalks that will be needed to continue building the station. They also have to be agile and healthy enough to save themselves in an emergency return to Earth. "Everybody's got two hours each day to run on the treadmill and do some other stuff because it's very important to stay healthy," Shepherd said.

Still, accidents happen. Astronauts in flight have been shocked, poisoned, lacerated and burned, Shepherd noted. "We can deal with that. I can't say we're prepared to do surgery," but the crew will have access to "telemedicine" experts on the ground if need be.

The dress code for ordinary workdays is strictly informal, based to some extent on the smell test. "We all have single-use [throwaway] clothing," said Gidzenko. "You use it for a couple days, two or three days, going for workouts and stuff, and then you discard it."

They will spend some of their time packing and storing trash, including used clothes, solid waste and urine, for pickup and hauling back to Earth by robotic Russian Progress cargo vessels.

In weightlessness, air sits stone still. Fans are required to create enough mixing to deliver oxygen, clear away exhaled carbon dioxide and even to prevent the heat of an astronaut's body metabolism from collecting around him.

The hardest thing, Shepherd surmised, may be "to go two months without a shower."

Astronaut Dave Wolf provided an especially observant running account of his four-month stay aboard Mir in 1997-98. After three weeks in orbit, he reported, "I am still trying to figure out how not to become 'upside down' when putting my pants on." After about six weeks, he was dreaming in Russian, and the people in his dreams, like those in his waking reality, floated. He dreamed of weightless volleyball and then awoke against a bulkhead with some loose piece of equipment nudging him.

Eating was a special nemesis. Early on, Wolf accidentally shook loose a punctured bag of rehydrated "Blackcurrant Jelly with the Pulp." It ended up all over the stereo, a rack of audio cassettes, an air duct and other equipment.

Later, well into his stay and presumably well-adapted, he confessed to a messy tangle with a hot beverage. Holding a full bag of hot coffee in his teeth, his hands gripping a notebook and pen, he accidentally snagged his headset wire on a protrusion. The coffee bag was knocked loose, sending hot liquid "into my face, up my nose and into my eyes. I can't even breathe as my face is encased in a growing blob of hot coffee."

A long-duration crew may sometimes feel a sense of isolation and confinement, and an inclination to introspection. Gidzenko's recipe for staying happy and healthy for a long tour in orbit: satisfying work, a little R&R, and "you need to continually realize that people are waiting for you down on the ground." To be confined "in a closed-in space, remote from those you love and your friends, that's the major difficulty, which leaves an imprint, kind of, on our work, and how we rest, how we live on board."

They will especially welcome the arrival of the occasional space shuttle bringing new faces and interesting cargo, Gidzenko said. "Emotional terms, purely, we will be looking forward to our compatriots from Earth who will bring us things from our people who are dear to us, maybe might bring us some packages."

The crew will get a ration of each day's news selected by their ground teams, augmented sometimes by their ham-radio communications, and e-mail from family members and friends. (As for family deaths, they each decide whether they should be informed during the flight. Shepherd said, "These are arrangements each crew member makes personally.")

Spare time is apparently hard to cope with. Most days on Mir, "we had a lot of things to do. Time flew very quickly," said Gidzenko. But on holidays, "that was the time I think about Earth." Krikalev agreed. A slow day "is not the happiest day on orbit. Day when you have busy schedule and when you fulfill this schedule, this is a happy kind of day on the station."

One of the favorite pastimes during rare leisure moments is simply staring out of portholes at the priceless view. Shepherd and Gidzenko are taking books, compact discs and tapes, but the veteran Krikalev said, "In my experience on Mir flights, I didn't read much. Every time there's an opportunity to go and look outside, I do that."
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