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Weightless at last

Last Monday, my training manager e-mailed me a new version of my schedule (which I normally get each Friday for the following week) with two variants: One had a weightless flight on Thursday and the other had it on Friday. At first, I tried to parse the schedule to figure out the algorithms by which it was built: Rather than push things a day later, either Friday or Thursday was removed as a chunk (presumably to be reinserted next week). And one lesson was changed on Wednesday, to be replaced with “Preparation for weightless flight.” That ended up taking 40 minutes rather than two hours, so I got an extra break over lunch – and time to look forward to it.

But then the news sank in, helped by the prep lesson. Still, I was excited. I simply hoped this would be one of my good days as far as weightlessness goes. I had done it four times already, and enjoyed it each time. Once, though, I did get a bit queasy by the 15th cycle… and was glad that the 16th was the last. But on these two flights, we wre going to do only 10 parabolas (weightless cycles of 25 seconds) each.

One interesting point: The Americans tend to medicate for motion sickness, whereas the Russians are convinced most people can be trained to overcome it. Hence the weightless flights, plus numerous sessions in the vestibular chair, where you spin around in place nodding your head (and fighting motion sickness. The goal is not to make you sick or to test you, but to improve your resistance.

In the end, we went on Thursday. Charles and I met in the lobby for the appointed rendezvous at 7.05; the bus came at 7.15 and off we went. The day before I had hiked back to the gym to pick up my sneakers (the advised footwear), but one of them had fallen out of my bag between the gym and building 2. I discovered this too late and made a half-hearted effort to find it, hoping the car in the morning wouldn’t mind taking a slight detour on the way to the Aerodrom. But “the car” was a bus full of men in fatigues, we were already 10 minutes late, and the answer was no. So I took my seat in the back in one sneaker and one flimsy black leather shoe. Not a great way to start the day: I felt both annoyed and stupid, but still excited to be going.

How it works

“Weight” is actually the resistance of a mass to gravity: If there’s no resistance, there’s no weight. In a weightless flight, you are falling inside the plane at the same speed as the plane, so you feel no gravitational force (nor do you feel as if you are falling). But you can’t do this for too long, or you will hit the earth – and feel many Gs when it stops you! In orbit, by contrast, the forces of gravity are matched by centrifugal forces, so you are weightless more or less permanently, with nothing to slow you down. The 25 seconds of weightlessness on a plane are real, but it is only a trial-size experience.

Even so, it is tremendous fun. Each time I flew, I wanted more – even the time I got queasy. You want to be weightless for long enough so that you can pay attention, instead of wait for the signal to get close to the floor for the resumption of gravity. And you want to be in it long enough to overcome the queasiness.

At the aerodrom

We eventually got to the aerodrom - which is close enough to Star City that I regularly hear the droning of military aircraft coming and going at night. (They are less noticeable in the day. I don’t know what gives them that low frequency, but they sound different from and more romantic than commercial airplanes.) We stopped near the airplane, and then went to a hangar from which the soldiers/airmen dragged sacks out onto the bus. (Later I found out they contained parachutes and three space suits, for me, Charles and another of the guys.)

Then we got onto the plane. To my delight, warm air was blowing fiercely from little outlets all along the floor. Then we sat down on the mats that covered the floor and waited… from about 8 am to 10.30 am. It wasn’t clear what we were waiting for. The head of the mission, called Galitsin, had been friendly and approachable during the “prep” class the day before, but today he was remote and busy (starting with the sneaker incident). People milled around. There were about 20 of us all told – all men except for me, as usual.

Finally, at 10.30, we took off. That part was great: no seat belts and not even any sit-in-your-seat requirements. It was fun to stand by a window for take-off. We were wearing parachutes for safety, though they wouldn’t have been much use below 10,000 feet (or higher, for novices like me).

One of the military guys came up to me and said. “My name is Boris. I’m going to be your trainer for this exercise. I will take care of you and hold on to you. All you have to do is listen to my instructions.” Then he proceeded to take me through the plan. “In the first session, you’ll just go across the plane, from one side to another and back. I’ll push you over, and then you turn around and fly back. After a couple of times of that, you can fly up to the ceiling and back.”

All this was accompanied with a fair amount of mime and hand-waving on both our parts. “Then I will try a provokatsiya or two,” he continued, and I didn’t pay quite enough attention. “Can you clasp your knees while I spin you around?”

“ Of course,” I replied eagerly.

“And that’s it. For the second flight, you’ll put on your space suit in the first couple of sessions, fly around in it, and then take it off during the last two [of ten].”

And so it went.

Being weightless is tremendous fun. You really are flying. The amazing thing is that it does not feel amazing. It feels natural. Of course you can give a little push and go flying across a space. Of course you can jump and hit the ceiling, or bounce off a wall. You can push off in one direction, and keep going. The one thing I had difficulty doing was aiming low enough. The first few times, I tried to hit the wall but kept heading toward the ceiling and had to be pulled down. I started laughing.

Compared to my previous weightless flights in the US, it was wonderful to have twice as much space per person, so you weren’t constantly bumping into people, and also my own trainer to help me…

Or perhaps not. Having someone else throw you around means you move a lot more, it turns out. By around the fifth session, I was feeling queasy, but I hung in there. Then came the provokatsiya, which was a lot of fun… but my stomach seemed to perform all those same motions in miniature, inside me. Boris looked at me handed me a large, flimsy plastic bag.

I thought I was going to have to use it, but just holding it made me feel better. And then the tumult inside me subsided.

I sat the next session out. Of course, it’s not easy to sit in weightlessness; more precisely, I clung to the wall so I wouldn’t go anywhere. And for the last session, I simply flew across, straight, from one side to the other.

Dr. Alimurzaev (you can see him modeling spacewear on Flickr) noticed my discomfort, and offered me a large white pill, but I demurred. “It’s nice and cool on your tongue!” he insisted, popping one himself.

In all, I was glad the first set of sessions was over! The flight back was fairly straightforward as I recovered my composure.

Pereriv (breaktime)

We went back to the hangar, where everyone had gathered in a single warm room with a woman who appeared to be the manager/secretary, an electric kettle, and a huge amount of parachutes, flight bags and other equipment, along with piles of paper and various commemoratory plaques on the wall. Dr. Alimurzaev took me into a back room to take my blood pressure. “You don’t need to go again,” he told me. “You can go tomorrow.”

Certainly, the only thing worse than going again that day would have been to announce I couldn’t take it, and then wait another day to go again. I told Alimurzaev I was fine. He looked dubious. He took out some more pills. It turned out that what he had offered me earlier was actually a mint, but now he had some Dramina (the Russian version of Dramamine) to offer. I took it eagerly and again told him I felt fine. “We’ll wait and see,” he said.

Aside from everything else, it seemed totally crazy to wait a whole day, get the same 20 people out of bed early again, and do a repeat. I tried to look as cheerful as I could…and I was sincere. I did want a chance to redeem myself, and I did want it to be over!

Round two

At last, without any more discussion, we all got back onto the plane. I don’t know whether there ever was any question of postponing it, but in any case, off we went. There was no lunch, but though I felt better, I didn’t exactly feel hungry.

This time we took off right away. Once we got up, we removed our parachutes, and then (Charles and I) our outer clothes. What you wear inside a space suit is basically underwear. It seems to come in one size, 48, which is equivalent to XL.

Suddenly someone came out from the cockpit and said, “Get dressed! No more. We’re going back.” Charles and I looked at each other, and put our stuff back on, including parachutes. Clearly something was very wrong; I was just glad it wasn’t my fault.

We all sat in silence for 10 minutes, and then a new command came out. We were going to do the flight after all. They were vague about the problem, which evidently was an equipment one, and equally vague about the resolution.

This time I acquitted myself better, though I was still glad to have my bag as a security.. well, a security device. I persuaded myself that the Dramina would work, and besides – no twirling!

Now the good thing about an XL space suit is that it’s easy to get into, so in this exercise I excelled. I got into my space suit easily within two sessions, including zipping it up (with a little help from Boris). The next six sessions I flew around gently, with Boris tugging and pushing as necessary.

In the ninth session, I wriggled out of my space suit in one go, and flew across the plane again on the tenth.

So, that was it. I’m eager to go again, and get better at it. The Russians are probably right about trainability, but I think I’ll take the Dramina the first time out as well. Why spoil the fun?

I can see clearly now

I just spent six action-packed days in New York, trying to sort things out for the next three months.

I felt a little like a dog marking territory, or perhaps a Web user cross-posting everywhere, spreading my meager presence in New York and trying to catch up with as many people as possible… I met with several teams of entrepreneurs, with agent Andrew Wylie about a book proposal and with a bunch of friends. I just soaked in the chatter at Meetup, at whose offices I work.  On Tuesday I went to a breakfast with some Important People (Laurie racine, Tina Brown, Robert Tolmach, Jane Friedman, Chan Suh, Tom Watson,  Tim Armstrong, Laurie Coots and others) at the New York stock exchange.

At the same time, I was  frantically  hustling around buying knee socks – not those short ones that have become so popular - and winter gloves and medicines, signing up for automatic payment of everything I could, collecting long underwear that I can finally wear out and leave behind in Russia, making a backup of my photos to leave behind, and so on.

Precisely in order to decamp  for three months, I had to pay serious  attention to housekeeping for the first time in years.  On the Friday after New year’s  I managed to coordinate home  visits of three service people – cable guy, refrigerator delivery (though the real point was the removal of the old refrigerator) and a real-estate appraiser (I’m trying to refinance my two apartments).

Amazingly, they all showed up.  And during the extra time, I even read my gas meter…which I last did so long ago that Con Ed at first refused to believe the results.

This was the last time I’ll be in New York until after the launch, so there was a lot to take care of.  Of course, I probably won’t actually be up in space; I’m only a backup.  But whatever the chance is, I won’t know any more until the end.  Unless *I* break a leg, there will be  a chance I might go right up until five hours before the launch …and I need to plan for the possibility now, while I still have access to all the conveniences and resources of my life in New York.

Most important, on Saturday I almost lost a contact lens at my swimming pool, and I  realized that I should get around to ordering that spare set of contact lenses I have been meaning to get for a while.

Imagine coming back from space only to say: “Yeah, it was really great, floating around and all. But unfortunately I lost one of my contact lenses.  It will  probably end up stuck to one of the air-intake units; everything else does.  But I never did manage to get a really satisfying view of the Earth with only one eye.”

In fact, once I was there at Union Square Optical, I decided to go with the bifocals.  Once you’ve closed your helmet, you can’t put on or remove your glasses.  And even with the helmet off, the communications headset gets in their way.  (Haven’t they heard of earbuds?)

<strong>Home is what you leave behind </strong>

So, here I am in Star City again, relaxing a little now that I have left New York and Houston behind. I am writing with my new bifocal contact lenses.  Things are still a little fuzzy, but I haven’t used my reading glasses since I got the lenses yesterday in New York.  “You’ll get used to them!” said the doctor.

I’ m sure I will.  I have also gotten used to my two-room apartment here on the third floor.  In fact,  the experience of living in Star City, where I don’t have an office to go to during the day, is giving me a new appreciation of “home” as a concept.  Every morning I head out to the pool and to classes, but there’s no place that’s mine until I come back home at night.   Somehow, this has translated into an appreciation of home in New York as well. I’m not sure yet what this means, but I know I will find out when I get back for good (without even having gone into space).

The NASA report

I paged through the  NASA report on the last moments of the Columbia crew’s lives this weekend. The main report, published way back in August 2003, focused on what went wrong with the mission (and how it could be prevented). Basically, some insulation fell off and poked a hole in the spacecraft. This report focused on the crew’s experience and what might have protected them better. In the end, you could say it was moot because they would have died anyway, but there were some specific points that might not be moot some “next time.” Specifically, the crew weren’t ready to close their space suits, and they weren’t properly restrained – so that, at the end, their upper bodies probably sustained a lot of damage as the space craft shook and tumbled around wildly. That’s a delicate way to say it.

This all puts my training in new perspective! This coming week I’ll be spending three days in Houston, and I’m curious what reverberations from the report I’ll be hearing. Perhaps this was already common knowledge, but it always helps to see it laid out in a 400-page report.

I’ve often joked that half our lessons in Star City end as follows: “If all else fails, jump into your space suit and close the helmet!” The problems are two-fold. First of all, it takes a fair amount of time and effort to get suited up – which is why protocol requires that you already be wearing the space suit at perilous times – basically, leaving or returning to earth, docking maneuvers and any other time at which you aren’t simply in orbit. But even with the space suit on, it takes a bit of time to get the gloves snapped on properly and the helmet closed.

Why not just work with the space suit firmly shut? That’s a reasonable question and one that will probably be asked again. For starters, it’s uncomfortable. The gloves are awkward, the helmet restricts your vision, and when you’re inside a pressurized suit it’s hard to do much that’s useful. But there’s another reason: When the suit is pressurized, it runs off pure oxygen, which you breathe. You exhale carbon dioxide, but the mixture that is slowly released into the space capsule is very high-oxygen, which raises the danger of a fire.

Balancing all these considerations – pressure, oxygen content, crew comfort and capabilities – is the challenge. The NASA study suggests that there should be some way for the suits to close and pressurize automatically. The crew seem to have lost consciousness before they even had a chance to close their helmets. This was probably a blessing for them in this case, where they probably suffered less than they might.  (And it was definitely a comfort to their families.) But in another case where the craft itself did not disintegrate, an automatic closure could help a crew survive a depressurization.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. At Richard Garriott’s launch, I happened to walk in on a talk being given by MIT’s Dava Newman, an expert in space suit design who is working on something closer to a wet suit than to the current space suits, which seem more like sausage balloons. I just pinged her, and she replied: “[My] BioSuit has its advantages, the greatest being comfort and flexibility, which come from the Mechanical Counterpressure (MCP) design, in contrast to a gas-filled suit. But they aren’t flight-ready yet. My design addresses the issues of allowing maximum mobility/flexibility and providing (relatively) high-pressure (1/3 atm. or 30 kPa) through MCP, or directly applying the pressure to the skin, or body.  More research and development is necessary for this concept, but it holds promise for a flexible, emergency pressure suit system.” There’s also a tension between suppleness and reliable impermeability. More about that here.

But for now, the biggest issue is simply that the suit is unpleasant and awkward to wear, yet in many cases it can be a lifesaver only if you are already wearing it. In my training, the instructors are still relatively gentle about how long it takes me to get suited up, but I suspect that over time I’ll be expected to get quicker.

In the meantime, perhaps, there will be a little more pressure for some innovation – whether in fundamental design or in some automatic closing mechanisms. In general, the mantra in space travel seems to be “stick with what works, even if it’s 40 years old.” But this is something that now clearly does not work. How will the system respond?

CONTEXT

It’s worth noting that the main studies for both the Challenger and the Columbia 17 years later focused on the NASA decision-making culture as the ultimate culprit. Questions went unanswered, concerns were squelched, and so on. In the end, it’s as subtle as tone of voice. Try reading this sentence aloud: “So, we’ve have had a productive meeting. Anyone have anything else to ask?” In one tone of voice, it says, “Okay, let’s see what we can learn here. There must be something more….” It’s a genuine solicitation for expressions of doubt.

In another it says, “Done. We’re finished. Please don’t raise anything else.” It’s basically a threat.

At this point, I don’t know enough about the Russian space system to judge how they would ask this question. I’ll be listening.

To be politically correct, let me state for the record that there are no good or bad teachers, only good or bad students. As for me, there are some classes in which I am a good student, and others in which I am bad.

In the ones where I am best, the teachers are engaged and try to understand what is going on in my mind. (You could say the same for any good marketer; they listen to see if the message got through correctly.) The teachers for whom I am bad simply recite their material, oblivious whether it makes sense to the student.

One of my favorites is Vladimir Trofimov, who is trying earnestly to help me be a better student. He has the challenging task of training me to use the radio system aboard the International Space Station, a complicated web of interconnected links including two UHF links (the second one both duplex and simplex), the S-band system which you can connect to through the American section’s network (and thence from Houston to Moscow), the “Regul” data link, etc. etc. I can now parse routing diagrams so complex that I would never have paid attention to them in the past. Now I rely on them to set up comm links. But in practice, the first step is to check whether you’re in range of the Russian ground stations. The examiners love to set you a complex task, watch you go through all the right steps, and then fail to get through because you forgot to check whether the “UHF” light was shining.

There are lots of other components: laptops where you can set up the links, and of course control panels where you actually plug in the headphones, turn mics on and off and the like.

For some reason, the panels are numbered 1 to 6, and are located thus along the length of the Russian Service Module:

2 4 6

5 1 3

You’d think it wouldn’t matter much, but panels 2 and 3 double as switches, so you need to keep them straight. The S-band goes out through panel ….. oops, gotta check!.. through channel 1 on panel 3 and the ISS intermodule link connects via panel 2 on…uh, channel 2. However, to use the S-band from any other panel you should turn on line 1, and to communicate with other modules, line 3. I keep trying to put it all into some neat logical frame, but in the end, I realize I just have to commit it to memory: Line 3 for channel 2, and so on. It reminds me of those neurological tests where they ask you to read words, and they flash “red” at you, but the letters are blue.

Trofimov also offers practical advice. There are several words for “turn off.” The most frequently used one – vikliuchit’ - happens to sound a lot like the word for “turn on” – vkliuchit’. He advises me to use “otkliuchit’,” which is much harder to confuse. (Of course, if you are trying to persuade an examination commission that you really meant turn on when you said turn off by mistake, perhaps it’s good to be confusing. Whatever!) That advice will be useful well beyond radio class!

Trofimov’s face crinkles when he laughs, and he’s full of stories about space travel and other topics. He has been to the US, and he’s surprised at how many rules we have: things you can and cannot say in public, whom you may open doors for (i.e. not women), the police who appear out of nowhere when you make a wrong turn… That rather surprises me, but he’s sure of it.

Of course, he acknowledges, there is a saying that “the severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the fact that they are rarely observed.” Indeed, from what I have seen, there are more rules in Russia, but there is more variation in their application. The guards who are supposed to keep strangers out of Star City are likely to make an exception for a driver carrying a passenger on a snowy night, for example…and thank goodness they did!

…except in space, where the rules concerning safety are strictly observed and “experimentation” is discouraged.

Snow gets in your tires

They asked me how I knew my black bike was true,
I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
They said someday you’ll find all who ride are blind,
When your legs’re on fire, you must realize,
Snow gets in your tires.
So I chaffed and then I gaily laughed,
To think that they could doubt my skill,
Yet today, my gears have slipped astray,
I am without my bike.
Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide,
So I smile and say when a lovely frost dies,
Snow gets in your tires.

to the tune of “Smoke gets in your eyes”

Of course, the moment I wrote that nice post about Richard’s bike, something started going wrong with the gears. I don’t know if it’s age, or just a short-term thing due to too much slush. The temperature is now just about freezing, and each revolution of my wheels slaps a stream of slush onto the frame…and the gears. (….to say nothing of my hardy Sorel boots, which fortunately are designed for just such abuse.) Of course, I have never much liked gears. As my father the scientist says: “The fewer the buttons on the toaster, the less chance it will break down.” The same goes for bikes.

Whatever! Contrary to the poem above, I still do have the bike, and I will oil the gears gently once everything has melted and dried. This bike is something like a Patek Philippe watch: Richard Garriott left it behind and asserts no claim to it. And I should likewise pass it on to the next careless cosmonaut who dares to risk limb and flight.

As far as I know, there are certain restrictions on people who have suffered broken bones. There used to be a strict prohibition against anyone who had ever broken a bone going into space. Now, well, it will certainly give you trouble with the medical commission, especially in the months just before launch. But I take care to go slowly, and the slush and snow slow me down anyway). Moreover, the ability to get around on my own at reasonable speed gives me a sense of control that I treasure.

How to get around Star City – and outside of it? It’s actually quite a large place, and I haven’t seen most of it. There is one main gate, as far as I know, that sits about 200 meters from the “elektrickhka,” an electric suburban train that goes into Moscow. You can also catch a marche-routka, a yellow van from a service that operates all around Moscow and connects many parts of Moscow to the metro and to one another. You wouldn’t believe it based on the traffic, but most Muscovites don’t have cars. The marche-routka ends at the Shcholkovskoye metro station, which is at the end of the line – which in turn means you can usually get a seat on the metro. For me, it’s especially convenient, because that line goes through Moscow directly to the Kievskaya station, which is near the Radisson hotel where I like to hang out on weekends (for the pool, mostly, though Star City’s own pool is great, it turns out – more on that later. But it’s closed on weekends).

The first time I took the marche-routka, it was a Saturday morning, around 8 am. I had just discovered the cafeteria was closed on weekends, so I was heading into Moscow for breakfast and a swim. The parked marche-routka was empty, so I looked around for a driver and spotted someone. “Are you
the driver?” I asked politely.

The guy shrugged and said (loose translation): “Lady, look at me! I’m standing here, drinking a beer. Do I look like the driver?” Well, no, I hadn’t actually noticed the beer, and in Russia that doesn’t seem to be much of a disqualification anyway.

(But perhaps it is. On my very first trip to Russia, back in 1989, I took a private taxi and struck up a conversation with the driver. Professional taxis at the time were quite rare; mostly, people just hitch-hiked and negotiated fares one on one. But this guy drove professionally and shared his car with a colleague: “One day he drinks and I drive,” the driver told me. “And the next day it’s other way around.”)

Whatever, the marche-routka is not bad; the challenge is the kilometer-plus from the Prophy (where I live) to the gate. (It’s probably not smart to leave a bike there over two nights.) So this past weekend lived a life of luxury – taking a car-and-driver (thanks, Space Adventures!) into the city after class on Friday to go to a party for TerraLink, a software company I’m an investor in. I stayed overnight at the Radisson (thanks, visa!) and rolled out of bed in the morning right into the pool. No overcoat and boots and gloves with liners; no bike ride in the dark; no fuss at all. But also no fir trees in the snow; no sight of the church that is taking shape behind the Prophy; no friendly greeting from the ladies who clean the “fizkultura” building in Star City. And no lane to myself.

Now I’m back in Star City, and appreciating the clean white snow after Moscow’s slush. When I first got here in October, I walked or ran everywhere. That got a little tiresome: It’s a bit more than a kilometer to the complex where the classes, cafeteria and gym are. Then I discovered – or Richard Garriott told me about – Richard’s left-behind bike. In November, I thought, Cool! I’ll keep riding this until the snow comes. When the snow came in December, I thought about tromping through it…and grabbed the bike. I fell off the first day, but suffered little damage beyond a painful bump on my knee. The folks at the gym tell me I can start cross-country skiing when the “real” snow comes, but so far I’ve been getting better at biking and haven’t fallen off again. So far…

Most New Year’s resolutions *begin* on New Year’s Day, but there’s no real completion date, and the resolutions are usually vague. I prefer to make my resolutions about what I will accomplish *before* New Year’s, even though some years I have to stretch it to December 32 or even later.

This year, my resolution is to get into the habit of writing a blog, 5 days a week, no matter what. Somehow I manage to find 90 minutes to swim every day and usually 10 to 15 for Flickr, so half an hour should be manageable. I’m sitting here in Star City, training to be a cosmonaut, and I was sure I would have the time after classes every day from 9 to 6. Night life around here is, to put it kindly, limited. So far I have been filling it up somehow, but now’s the time to get serious.

I hope to write a book at least loosely based on this training experience, and I will bless myself later for having recorded the details now.

And as professor Larin said just last week – he’s the most philosophical of my teachers – “Next week you will be a different person from what you are today, and by [the launch on 25] March you will be still a different person. And afterwards, you will be yet another person.”

Indeed, that’s the idea. This training is far more than just learning about the Russian Soyuz space craft; it’s also an initiation into the Russian system from inside, as well as space travel from inside. It’s a test of my temperament as well as my skills.

After all, I’m an American, a fan of Robert Kennedy’s famous remark: Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” I’m always asking why, or occasionally, “Why don’t they do it this way instead?” The answer is almost always, “We have always done it this way, and it’s reliable.”

And in fact, Kennedy, well, borrowed it from an obscure play by George Bernard Shaw. The lines were spoken by a serpent to a woman named Eve.

So call me Eve. I want to learn everything they can teach me, and understand it. I’m learning about life support systems, pressure variations, radio systems, amperes-volts-and-watts (they’re different things?!?), safety parachutes and the like. I’m learning to get in and out of a space suit properly, and I want to be good enough to be a help rather than a hindrance to the crew. I would love to be able to fly on the Soyuz, but even if I don’t, I will have a solid understanding of how everything works.

Nonetheless, when it’s all over, I want to bite the apple and become an American again, and help create the why-not part, as an investor in private space travel.

Okay, half-hour’s over. Tomorrow and the next day and the next, specifics about such things as learning space Russian, the food, the pool, the people, the space suit…

Well, I’m back! I took a week off after the first Day 1 (or week 1, of medical tests) to take care of business in the US: paperwork and collecting medical files on the weekend, the Personal Genome Project on Monday in Boston, a colonoscopy and a gastroscopy, a heart calcium scan and an ear microflora assessment (because I have swimmer’s ear) on Tuesday in Houston, the WPP board meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Palo Alto, the 23andMe board meeting and a Zeppelin ride on Friday, a speech at the Singularity Summit on Saturday, and now I’m back in Star City for my current “real life.”

But I’m not where I expected to be: Instead of in Prophy 1, where Richard Garriott and the gang are presumably recovering from their flight, I’m in Prophy 2. The rooms here are somewhat nicer, but I’m all alone except for a woman whose only job seems to be managing the key to my suite.

Today I think there is more medical stuff, but I don’t really know. Marsel Gubaydullin of Space Adventures will show up at 9 am to take me around. But I have already started my new life. There is reportedly a swimming pool around somewhere; the last time I was here, they told me it was closed. So this morning, before I could discuss it with myself and after a nine-hour sleep (I arrived yesterday from California), I got up and went running – 25 minutes of run/walk, around a pretty little lake. I found Prophy 1, which made me feel good, and came back hot and sweaty and satisfied.

First battle over: I can find an alternative to swimming, though I know I was lucky today - no rain or snow, and it’s still light at 7 am. In the dead of winter, the sun won’t come up until after 8 am. Maybe by then I’ll have figured out the pool situation, or I’ll know my way around in the dark. Today, there was just a light frost by the lake, and the boggy parts of the path were damp rather than icy.

AND LATER THIS SAME DAY..

Ah, much better now! I did well on the bicycle test: My pulse doubled from 60 to 121 and my blood pressure went from 105/60 to 166/85 (does that sound okay?) and both of them came right back down again. I hardly broke a sweat.

Then we hustled over to another building to see the press conference for the returning cosmonauts: Richard Garriott, Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Volkov. Sergey is the first second-generation (Russian) cosmonaut; Richard is the first second-generation (US) Sergey’s wife and kid as well as his father were there; it was charming. But unfortunately Owen Garriott, Richard’s father, is busy working on follow-ups to Richard’s space projects and couldn’t be there. Photos on Flickr.

It was a cosy event. There were jokes about Richard’s going again, just like Charles. And Richard talked about his various space projects; one of them was to take photos of the same spots his father had photographed 35 years ago and to compare them… Those will be some interesting results!

After that, we headed back to Prophy 2 to pick up my things and move to Prophy 1. Prophy 2 is a little fancier and I had a suite, but Prophy 1 is the real deal; Richard is staying there now and Charles will move back in in January. The European Space Agency is around the corner on my floor, and NASA’s Star City office is on the second floor one floor below. Plus, I have a view of the lake from my single room (which is all I need).

And the internet is working, which is why this post is up!Thanks, Marsel and Denis!

Cosmonaut training: Day 0

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I will be focusing this blog on my cosmonaut training over the next few months, recounting my space EDventures as backup to Charles Simonyi, a civilian who will be going into space for the second time next March 25. Space Adventures, a US company, is organizing everything for both of us, and is our primary official interface with the Russian Space Agency. Day by day, of course, we will be living within the Russian system and experiencing it face-to-face, living in the Russian section of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, where NASA’s astronauts also train but are housed in a “foreign” section. (On the Space Station, Charles will live in the Russian modules.) So we are either more local than the US astronauts here, or we are double foreigners… Photos at www.flickr.com/photos/edyson, often quicker than I can get the posts up.

Disclosure: I am an investor in and client of Space Adventures, which edits these posts.

My training - Day 0

So, here I am at Star City, getting a medical check-up in order to go into training as a backup astronaut. That’s not a simple one-day procedure; in fact, I already did three days of tests last spring at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (which is now scrubbing up after costly devastation from Hurricane Ike).

That was for the Americans – Space Adventures – to make sure that I was healthy enough to present to the Russians. Now the Russians are having a look for themselves. Yesterday was a whirlwind of EKGs and various physical inspections – lung X-rays, dental survey (they found what may be a new cavity), drawing of blood (five tubes) and so on. Right now I am wearing a Holter monitor, so I can’t go swimming (or wash) until they take it off at 9 am.

But of course what’s really happening is that I’m getting an overwhelming introduction to the Russian system. I can tell right now that this is going to be a battle of the will – me against the Russian system. Of course in one way I will lose: The Russian system will not change. But I will also win: I will learn how to change myself, but voluntarily,  bending my own will to survive and thrive, while maintaining some inner core. After all, I’m doing this of my own volition… something I may have to remind myself of from time to time in the months ahead.

For now, I just need to get through the next few days. Over the next three months, I’ll be spending about half my time in Russia and half in the US. I spent last night in the building that will be my home half-time over the next three months, and full-time from mid-January to mid-March. After that, I’ll move to Baikonur with Charles Simonyi, the person to whom I am backup. (If for some reason he can’t go, I get the chance to replace him – but only if I can come up with the funds.)

This building, called Prophi 1, is actually nicer than I expected. The “rooms” are in fact two-room suites, Russian-style, elegant but slightly threadbare. Each of them has a little balcony looking out over the woods – which will soon enough become a snowy wilderness.

They are cosy – no need for the space heater I was planning to bring. On the other hand, no Internet access until I return in a couple of weeks. And I still haven’t managed to see the pool. I have heard all kinds of stories about it: It opens at 7 am. No, it’s open only from 9 to 6, weekdays. (Guess I’ll have to go into Moscow on weekends to swim.) It’s a pleasant temperature. No, it sometimes goes down to 50 degrees. It’s filthy. No, it’s just that they use a silver compound rather than chlorine to keep it clean. In any case, for the next few nights I will be staying with a friend who has his own pool.

Of course, that adds complications because the next three days of tests are in downtown Moscow, but it’s not yet clear where. I speak passable Russian and can find my way around the city…but the challenge will be to find the right person, in the right wing, in the right corridor, in the right room, of giant state institutions designed only for those who have worked there for years. Addresses often include maps because you simply can’t find places without a visual guide.

Tech support for an astronaut

On the plus side, I have already spent time chatting with a variety of astronauts in a non-photo-opp way… In fact, I even provided Owen Garriott (Richard’s father, who has flown twice) with tech support for his e-mail! He was with us for the launch and is now staying here in Star City in Richard’s room – which is the one that does have Internet access. So Charles and I and our two Space Adventures handlers and Dr. Jennings all sat around in his living room switching the cable from one PC to another. And for dinner, we went over to the NASA compound where Sunny Williams (an astronaut who is now a deputy in charge of operations) and Mike Faul and other folks were just hanging out. I first saw Sunny Williams from Russian mission control back in 2007; she was on the Space Station when Charles arrived on his first trip. And here she was in person, considerably less fuzzy!

Back to (flight) school!

I’m about to go into training in Moscow as a backup astronaut, shadowing Charles Simonyi. The press release from Space Adventures is here.

I started this blog a couple of years ago in honor of “Flight School,” the name of my annual conference for entrepreneurs in air and space. Last June, we canceled this year’s event; we were getting a foretaste of the current rotten economy – Eclipse’s troubles, DayJet suspending operations, a general malaise – and didn’t think we could get enough attendees to put on a good show. I’m still hoping to revive the conference – but probably not until 2010.

In the meantime, however, I’m embarking on another kind of Flight School, and trying to play it cool as I mention casually that I’m about to start training as a backup cosmonaut for Charles Simonyi, who will be making his second trip into space this coming March 25. If for some reason he doesn’t go (and I can scrounge up some extra cash), I get to go instead!

Yup! My chances of going this spring are probably about 5 percent. (I know Charles well enough to sincerely wish him good health and godspeed.) But my chances of ever going will probably be about 50 percent once I complete the training. (You know the joke about the whiner who begs God to let him win the lottery, just once! God responds from on high: “So, please, at least buy a ticket!” I have bought my ticket.)

What does this all mean? for me and for this blog?

I’m going to start posting here regularly about my experiences… which, to be candid, will probably not all be fun. I’m expecting it to be cold staying in Star City through a Moscow winter, with a lot of detailed material to learn and exams to pass. Each Soyuz flight has three cosmonauts, and the other two want a colleague they can rely on to do the right thing in an emergency. By all accounts the food is “stolovaya” (canteen) and the accommodations are Spartan. But hey! there will be a purpose to it, and at the end I will know space flight and the Russian space program intimately – except for the actual experience of floating up there for a week or more.

Other people go back to school to get an MBA; I’m going to get a space degree.

One of the best times in my life was when I was writing a book (”Release 2.0: A design for living in the digital age”) back in the late 90s. For about four months, I canceled all appointments and went to the office every day. About two weeks into this routine, my partner Daphne Kis walked into my office and said, “You know, I don’t know how to say this, but we were all terrified to have you here fulltime. We thought you’d be working hard and be really crabby, but you’re in such a good mood!”

Indeed I was, because I had made a commitment to a single goal, and I no longer had any conflicts. I was devoted to the book.

In the same way, I expect to spend most of the next six months, and especially January to March, fully devoted to my training. I am politely canceling my appointments and commitments and refusing new ones, but now it’s easy, whereas before it was hard. (Apologies to anyone reading this who’s on my cancellation list!) Now I have a specific “better offer.”

I’m already looking forward to the time after March 25, when the hard work will all be over and I’ll be a trained cosmonaut, but I’m also looking forward to the psychological clarity of having a single mission. More on the trials and tribulations later!

Coming soon:

Richard Garriott’s launch tour: I’ll be in Moscow and Baikonur next week to watch Richard Garriott go up October 12

The medical: I did half of this last spring at University of Texas medical Branch (yes, my records were backed up); I will do the rest two weeks from now in Moscow following Richard’s launch

General coverage of the space marketplace: I’ll have lots of time every evening after classes (which run 9 to 6 every day)

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