Bad Day in Space

Patience and frustration on the ISS

Anderson working inside the station's Destiny laboratory in 2007. (NASA)
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In his candid new book, The Ordinary Spaceman (University of Nebraska Press, 2015), retired astronaut Clay Anderson dishes the kind of in-house politics that most NASA memoirs don’t, including—as in this excerpt—the sometimes strained relations that can develop between space crews and their taskmasters on the ground. Read an interview with Anderson in our August 2015 issue.

One of what I call my “dark episodes” in space happened between me and Mission Control, and was about technical issues. My recollection is that Fyodor [Yurchikhin], Oleg [Kotov], and I were preparing the space station for the arrival of the STS-118 crew. Prior to their arrival and docking, I was performing standard but critical ISS activities. These included disposing of trash and prepacking supplies and equipment we no longer needed so that the Endeavour could return them to Earth. I was also gathering tools and prepositioning items the Endeavour crew would need when they exited the airlock on Flight Day 4 for Rick Mastracchio and Dave Williams’s first spacewalk of the mission.

My goal as the only American station crewmember was to offload as much work for them as possible so that when they arrived on station, they could immediately focus on the robotics tasks and their excursions outside.

The trouble started on the morning we were to have a visit from a Russian Progress cargo ship. I was tasked to be in the airlock when the ship was scheduled for docking, gathering the spacewalking tools that Rick and Dave required. The airlock contains a simple yet clever piece of equipment mounted above the lead spacewalker’s space suit. It is a foldout bag made from special white Nomex fabric, and is used to stow extravehicular mobility unit equipment—spacewalk gloves, moleskin, eyeglasses, and the like—in its various pockets. The bag both protects the items and prevents them from floating away in the absence of gravity. It had been in its prescribed location since my arrival with STS-117 and was in perfect condition, having suffered little damage from its time in the shirt-sleeve environment inside the airlock.

One of my tasks for the day was to take that bag down and stow it in another. Then, when Endeavour’s crew delivered the new bag, I was to dig out the old bag and give it to them to stow back in the shuttle. As I worked I began to think there had to be a more efficient way to accomplish this. I called Mission Control via the space-to-ground loop 2 and cleverly suggested it would be more efficient to leave the current bag in place, use it for all four EVAs with STS-118, and then have Rick and Dave give me the new bag just prior to their departure. At that time I’d give them the old one for return.

My plan was not exactly embraced by the folks down on Earth. I got considerable pushback for that and several other time-saving suggestions. My frustration level was growing significantly.

The situation came to a head hours later when I received an email from the ground. Forwarded to me by our lead flight director, Bob Dempsey, the note related clearly that while I may have been frustrated with the ground, the ground was growing frustrated with me. The comments were, to say the least, acerbic.

“Why doesn’t he just be quiet and do what he’s told?” was the response to my numerous questions regarding task protocols. One comment was more to the point: “Why don’t they just bring him home with the STS -118 crew?” It was obvious I was not winning any popularity contests.

Bob Dempsey was trying to help me see things from the perspective on the ground, hoping to further my understanding of the negative impact I was having on them and to perhaps get me to back off a bit.

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