The Joy of Finding Out

Events of December 12, 2011

It should probably tell you something about me that one of my ways of reckoning time in terms of recent events in my life is by trying to remember who was on the International Space Station at the time. Right now, it's Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov, and Anatoly Ivanishin. Back at Halloween, it was Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furukawa, and second-generation cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, and when I first came up to Boston for move-in day, it was Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev, and star shutterbug Ron Garan.

So, when I got an e-mail from Ryan Kobrick saying that MIT alumna Catherine "Cady" Coleman would be speaking over in Cambridge on Monday, my first thought was "Cady, Scott and Paolo? I can't believe that was almost a year ago!" (Of course, my second thought was to check my schedule and see if I was able to go -- and I was!)

It's true -- as Dr. Coleman told us, she'd launched from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket almost exactly a year ago to the day, and exactly a year from the day I'm writing this, on December 16, 2010. (The day after Dr. Coleman's 50th birthday -- she said it was quite the present!)

The focus of Dr. Coleman's presentation was life aboard the International Space Station, from washing her hair (it's hard when water, like everything else, floats!), the differences between modules built by different countries (Russian-built segments are less fancy, and more function-oriented than U.S. parts, but "we don't do passport checks" when moving in between), to the part of the mission that made her the most nervous (photographing the underside of space shuttles as they approached the station, because Mission Control needed the photographs to make sure the shuttles' heat shields were undamaged.)

Early in the presentation, Dr. Coleman showed us a video of her crew's arrival at the space station. She said that she loved that it was "a video and not just an animation", because when she'd been in college, people were asking "I wonder if we could design a space station?" She encouraged all of us to try and spot the ISS as it passed overhead at night:

"There's something emotional that happens when you go out into the night sky... and you look out there at the right time... just the right angle and the right time, and you'll actually see this thing. It's brighter than any star out there. And it just goes across the sky about like this," she moved her hand in an arc to demonstrate, "and to me, it's very significant, even though mathematically, I know it's certainly possible, and I'd known that I was going to go, and I'd known people who had lived there. But I look up there, and I see that thing, and I know there's people onboard. And I think it's significant, what we've all done. And it makes me optimistic about what we can do."

(I've seen the space station pass overhead several times, and I wholeheartedly agree. Find out how to see it yourself here!)

But what Dr. Coleman stressed most of all was the importance of teamwork on a six-month space mission. She and the other American astronauts had all learned to speak at least "reasonable" Russian -- as she demonstrated by conversing with a Russian student who happened to be in the audience -- and the cosmonauts all knew some degree of English. But the language training hadn't prepared her for all of the cultural differences that would arise -- while taking the crew portrait, Dr. Coleman and her Italian crewmate Paolo Nespoli had happily smiled for the camera, while their third crewmember, Dmitry Kondratyev, had kept a serious expression.

"C'mon, Dima, smile! Aren't you excited to go into space?" They had asked.

Mr. Kondratyev had explained that he was just as excited as they were, but that he had been raised to consider it unprofessional to smile in a pre-launch photograph. Dr. Coleman said she felt sorry she'd asked him to smile now that she knew it was something he wasn't comfortable with.

The team had trained together for a long time, and Dr. Coleman said that was important, because it can take a long time working with someone before you really realize all of their capabilities. "We're six very different people, and, astoundingly, it worked out really, really well." The crew's bond would serve them well, as their tenure on the space station turned out to be quite eventful. While they were in orbit, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the sister-in-law of Station Commander Scott Kelly, was critically wounded after an assassination attempt and a disastrous earthquake and tsunami hit ISS contributor Japan. On the positive side, the crew celebrated the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight on-orbit and received visits from two space shuttles. (One of which, STS-133 Discovery, was the one I saw launch!) Dr. Coleman was able to play a special flute duet with musician Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull.

Near the end of her presentation, Dr. Coleman showed a photograph of her young son eagerly holding up a frog he had just caught for her camera. Apparently, he's quite into exploring outdoors and looking for animals. Dr. Coleman said she knows the wide-eyed look on his face quite well -- "It's the joy of finding out."