The tensest moment in spaceflight: Docking with a 100-ton space station while orbiting Earth at five miles per second.
- By Thomas D. Jones
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
Veteran astronaut Tom Jones gives readers an insider’s look at spaceflight in his book Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir (Smithsonian Books/Collins). In this adapted excerpt, he recounts his STS-98 space shuttle crew’s February 2001 mission to the International Space Station (here called Alpha). Among the station’s other challenges, it tested the relationship between the United States and its former rival in space, Russia, as they worked together to build the largest and most complex structure ever placed in orbit.
Even 600 feet away, I was getting nervous. The station’s golden solar arrays and silvery white hull seemed motionless against the black sky, but I couldn’t dismiss the fact that both ships were racing around the globe at five miles per second. Each of us concentrated on our cockpit tasks, and there was little superfluous chatter. The quiet was punctuated by the occasional thud of a thruster firing and the clicking shutters and whirring motor drives of our cameras. Alpha was an irresistible target for photography; it was etched so cleanly on the black sky above that my friend and crewmate Marsha Ivins said later, “It was as if someone had squeegeed my eyes.”
I searched the faces of the others for signs of the tension I felt. Taco—Ken Cockrell—peered up through the overhead window in the aft cockpit, fingers curled around the hand controller for the shuttle’s maneuvering thrusters. Taco was Atlantis’ commander, piloting the orbiter through this crucial docking. This was his third space rendezvous as commander, but the most demanding yet, with the critical job of attaching the new Destiny science laboratory to the station. Mark Polansky—“Roman” to his friends—backed up Taco as pilot. As a rookie, this was his first rendezvous, and he was as focused and intense as I’d ever seen him. My spacewalking partner, Bob Curbeam—“Beamer”—babysat the docking system panel to Taco’s right. Stationed in the right front seat, I served as the pilots’ rendezvous assistant, riding herd on the checklist and our network of a half-dozen laptop computers. Marsha, on her fifth mission, would have the critical job after we docked of grappling the Destiny module from the payload bay and berthing it at the station. Now, as the “floater” for our rendezvous, she drifted face-up at the port aft window, rangefinder in one hand, camera in the other.
Marsha, having been to the Russian Mir station four years earlier, was less worried about the docking than tomorrow’s berthing: Could the system—her brain and hands, the computers, the robot arm, the berthing latches and bolts—pull off the task, which required moving the 16-ton lab module around with clearances of only a few inches? The “I’m doomed!” T-shirt she wore during training was a none-too-subtle sign of her worries. Sweating out a session in the arm training rig back in Houston, she had peered up at the mockup of the massive lab hoisted high on the slender arm. “What are they thinking? This is nuts! 1.4 billion dollars!” she groaned inwardly. Later, after we were back on Earth, she would tell me how keenly she had felt the pressure: “The rest of you guys just kind of guffawed around and joked and laughed, but every time I did the lab task I felt nauseous.”
My own feelings about visiting the International Space Station had changed over time. More than once in the early 1990s, I thought NASA might be better off if it cut its losses and canceled the ISS. Was it really required to get us out of low Earth orbit and on the way to the moon, asteroids, or Mars? Or was it a dead-end distraction that would doom NASA to a cash-strapped future endlessly circling Earth?
The five-year-old U.S.-Russian partnership, I felt, had been driven purely by NASA’s need to salvage the space station (and NASA’s bureaucratic prospects) under an indifferent administration that wanted to engage the Russians in some post-Cold War joint technology effort as a foreign policy exercise. But the realities of working with the creaky Russian space establishment had more than once threatened to drag the entire program down.
My cynicism slowly yielded to pragmatism as I recognized some hard facts. The administration would never give NASA the authority to jettison the Russians, no matter how difficult the partnership became. That would be a minor foreign policy disaster for the Clinton-Gore team. So for NASA, the road to the ISS had to go through Moscow. And my responsibility to NASA lay with moving the project forward if I could.
But at the moment politics was far from my mind. Now it was time to turn the orbiter around for docking. Atlantis, still headed nose-first along our direction of flight with the station above us, would bury her tail in the station’s belly if we docked in this attitude, and we needed the payload bay and lab out in front of the station for berthing. So at 600 feet, Taco initiated a computer-aided yaw maneuver to swing our nose around 180 degrees. Above us, the station pivoted gracefully in our windows, mirroring the orbiter’s actual motion. Three hundred feet now, closing as planned at 0.3 feet per second.