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
(Page 5 of 6)
Sunrise glowed first a pure blue, then pink, then silver-white across the Russian solar power arrays visible out front. In the harsh sunlight now washing over us, the entire station came into sharp focus. Taco could relax at last. Later he told me, “I was so psyched for the docking, and so trained for it, that I actually felt a little let down when it was over. Things went so smoothly that I felt, somehow, that there should have been more drama, or more angst (Marsha’s influence, maybe?), or more…something.”
The two docking tunnels now formed a slender vestibule between a pair of sealed hatches, one on Atlantis, another above in the station’s Pressurized Mating Adapter. Working with me in the airlock, Beamer quickly equalized the pressure between our cabin and the tunnel vestibule just above. Through the upper hatch window, we could see Shep, Sergei Krikalev, and Yuri Gidzenko opening the station hatch on their side.
We were ready for a reunion. Taco swam up through the airlock and joined us below the hatch. He peered up through the port, giving the Expedition One crew a quick wave.
“Everything ready, Tom?” Taco grinned; I should have seen it coming. “Let’s see how you do opening up this hatch”—a sly reference to the jammed hatch that had thwarted my planned spacewalk on a previous mission (see “No Way Out,” June/July 2002). I cranked the handle smoothly through a full circle. A quick tug and the hatch came off the seals, mingling the atmospheres of the two spaceships. With Beamer’s help on the stiff hinges, we swung the hatch down and flush against the airlock wall. Just like that, the door was open and the five of us floated aboard the space station.
Taco, a body length above me, rose into the burly embrace of a grinning Shep and two exuberant Russians. Drifting after him with Beamer, Roman, and Marsha, I entered the roomy world of the International Space Station. Shep, Yuri, and Sergei met us in their “foyer”; for a few minutes the Node, its trim a cheerful salmon color, was a scene of friendly chaos as we traded hugs, handshakes, and huge grins with our colleagues. The Expedition One crew had been on their own since Endeavour’s astronauts had departed nearly two months before, and they were delighted to see visitors, especially visitors bearing a lab-size housewarming gift.
Marsha later recalled her first impression: “Cleaner, compared to Mir. Cleaner and smelled a whole lot better.” The ISS surprised me too: It wasn’t some austere outpost, clinging to the very edge of human existence. It was a home port in space. The Node’s roomy interior, warmer temperature, and softer lighting made it cozy, compared with the shuttle’s cramped, sterile cabin.
Shep formally welcomed us aboard with a brief speech over the radio to both control centers, and a ceremonial ringing of the ship’s bell he had installed above the port hatch (he’d been a Navy SEAL). For the next week, the eight of us would work together as one crew. I looked forward to it, although the three space station astronauts were only casual friends of mine. I didn’t know Shep well, and he’d been scarce at NASA during the past few years, with most of his time spent in Russia. During Sergei’s shuttle training in Houston, I had enjoyed collaborating with him on a scientific paper. Yuri I knew only through his reputation as a well-regarded cosmonaut.
Marsha was closest to Shep. Both members of the 1984 astronaut class, they had a lot of catching up to do. “Shep wanted to know what was going on in the world…what was going on in the [Astronaut] Office,” she said. “I thought, playing with my crew is fine, but playing, talking, hanging out with these guys is a short moment in time, and I ought to take advantage of it.”