Three Million Miles in Ten Days

Floating off to sleep, Earthgazing, making sure the capsule doesn’t depressurize: all standard on a space vacation.

Gregory Olsen was the third private citizen to visit the space station, after Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth. (NASA / Courtesy Gregory Olsen)

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Crew members are tightly scheduled during their stay on the ISS. Mission control in Houston or Moscow sends up a radiogram each morning that details every hour for every person, including their assigned free time.

The day begins with breakfast around 8, usually combined with a status chat with the ground. Then crew members perform their scheduled duties, be it changing a filter, performing a science experiment, taking photographs, or the daily medical conference.

We all got together at mealtimes. While breakfast was a time to reconnect with the rest of the crew, do “com checks” with the ground, and review what was in store for us the rest of the day, lunch was more of a casual affair.

But dinner was our social time. It was more relaxed—our work was usually completed, we were a little tired, and we were more interested in enjoying our “camp” food and getting to know each other a little better. I recall one night we were all discussing what food we were looking forward to enjoying when we returned to earth. John Phillips wanted beer and pizza. Sergey wanted real coffee, so he could smell the aroma of a fresh brew, instead of just swallowing instant.

Personally I would have traded the chance to stay up in space longer for any food on earth, but I chimed in with steak and red wine. It was fun, and a good bonding experience, just getting to know each others’ thoughts and wishes.

Then it was back to our own pursuits before bed. Lights out occurred at 11 p.m. (Greenwich Mean Time), although some of the crew continued to read documents or spend time on the computer after that. Sleeping felt wonderful. It was…just a floating feeling, with my arms held out at my sides. To get in the mood I used to listen to opera, primarily Wagner’s Ring Cycle series, on my $15,000 iPod. (That’s how much it cost to flight certify it!) The strains of “Ride of the Valkyries” would remind me of the thrill of our Soyuz launch. Occasionally I would fire up some Chuck Berry or George Thorogood, two of my rock ’n’ roll favorites. Hank Williams, Sr. would round it out with some classic country. The first two nights it was difficult to get to sleep, due to the excitement of being there. But after that it didn’t take long to fall into dreamland. Occasionally rotations of the solar panels would wake me momentarily with a creaking noise. It reminded me of the sound of a ship’s ropes.

Waking up was just as enjoyable as going to sleep. You open your eyes and realize that you are floating. I usually arose around 6 a.m., before anyone else, and went right over to the window. I would just stare out at Earth and, aided by a world map, try to figure exactly where we were. Occasionally I’d take photographs. That quiet time, all by myself, was extremely relaxing and peaceful. Sometimes being alone can be its own reward.

I did have a lot of free time on board, but I was never bored. I kept busy with the medical and scientific experiments I’d agreed to perform for the European Space Agency. I also had fun communicating with the students at Princeton University, and with the high school kids at Ridgefield Park High in New Jersey and Fort Hamilton High in Brooklyn.

During those 10 days, without ever really being conscious of speed, I traveled a nearly unbelievable distance, at least when viewed from the perspective of Earth. Soyuz and the ISS circled our planet over 150 times, making a complete orbit approximately every 90 minutes. The orbits covered a total of over 3,000,000 miles.

And then it was time to leave. Bill and Valeri were on the ISS to relieve an astronaut and a cosmonaut who had completed their tour of duty, so I was going back to Earth with cosmonaut Sergey Krikalev, who had already spent over six months in the weightlessness of the ISS. During my stay he set the world record for total days in space: 803 days. NASA astronaut John Phillips was the other returnee.

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