Astronaut Jim Kelly escaped the confines of gravity for a couple of weeks in March as he embarked on a two week voyage that included the first crew transfer for space station Alpha. Kelly has been an astronaut since 1996, fulfilling a dream that began after his five-year-old imagination was captured by Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon in 1969. Kelly was the first University of Alabama graduate to fly in space.
B&W: Was flying in space everything you expected?
Kelly: Everything and more. Like a trip you can’t imagine.
B&W: At what point did you realize that you had completely left Earth’s atmosphere?
Kelly: The first place you realize it is when you have main engine cut-off. As soon as that happens, you just start floating out of your seat, everything starts floating up from where it is. And you realize you’re some place you’ve never been before. Of course, the ride up is pretty impressive, too. Something that you’ve never felt before; the different forces on your body, the shaking, and the visuals out the window.
B&W: Describe what you saw.
Kelly: Well, when you’re going up, the first thing you see is the main engines of the solid rocket boosters. You see the light out the window in your peripheral vision. And as you go off the launch pad, the first thing we do is a roll program to get us pointed in the right direction, headed basically east, northeast. If you glance out the window, you can see the Earth rolling around as you go up. We launched right after sunrise and headed towards the east. It got brighter and brighter through the first part of ascent as we went towards the sun. But then you get this big blast of light when the solid rocket boosters come off. There are explosive charges that cut the connections between it and the external tank. And you can see the flash pretty much out your front window. As you keep going up, it slowly starts getting darker and darker until you’re in the black of space.
B&W: Is your brain or thought process affected at all by zero gravity?
Kelly: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of funny. As you get more and more used to it, it becomes the natural way of things. If you need to grab something with both hands, and you’ve got something in one hand, say you’ve got a drink or pencil in one hand. Instead of trying to find some place to set it down, you just let go of it. It gives you a chance to do what you want, and you just come back and pick it up. When I got back on Earth, I dropped a fork. It’s one of those things you unconsciously start doing when you get back on the ground if you’re not thinking or if you’re tired because you’ve been up [in space] for a couple of weeks. You just forget, and you have the same habit patterns. That must be a stronger thing for the space station Alpha crew after being up there for four months. You go, “Hey, I don’t need this pencil right now,” and just let go of it and it falls to the ground. And you’re like, “Huh, why did that happen?”
The other thing it changes is your view of the world, in that down here on the ground it’s real easy to figure out what’s up and what’s down. Up in orbit the first couple of days, you have in your mind the Earth version of up and down, which isn’t necessarily the orbit version of up and down. So it takes a little while. You find your brain adjusting to what the new up and down is. And sometimes you’ll be looking at it, and you’ll be one way and three other people will be different ways. All of a sudden you’ll feel your brain shift to a new version of what’s up. And it’s kind of an interesting feeling.
B&W: When we spoke before your flight, you mentioned that the “fly around” (a shuttle maneuver allowing astronauts to eyeball the space station on all sides to check for any problems before returning to Earth) was a particularly big challenge for you as the pilot. Can you elaborate?
Kelly: We undocked and did one and a quarter laps around the space station. We were on the “V-Bar,” which means we were on the front end as the space station flies through space. And we went from the front end to above it, so that the space station was directly between the Earth and us. We could see the space station and the whole Earth beneath it. And from there we did one complete revolution–we went all the way down until we were between the station and Earth, and then all the way back to the top. We did our separation burn from directly above the station.
B&W: How difficult is flying and landing the shuttle?
Kelly: It’s different than any airplane [Kelly is a jet fighter pilot]. Most commercial airliners will come down on a flight path where it’s about a three degree angle off the ground. But for most of the final landing phase, the shuttle is coming down at an 18 degree glide path towards the ground. It’s six times as steep as what you’ll see in a commercial airliner, so obviously you’re coming towards the ground a lot quicker. Plus you’ve just spent two weeks in space. So you’ve gone two weeks at apparent zero G, and we pulled as much as 1.6 Gs coming back in. You’re readjusting to gravity at the same time as you’re flying a vehicle that–to use [shuttle commander] Jim Weatherbee’s words–is a “runaway freight train.” Your body is trying to catch up with gravity, your mind’s trying to catch up, ’cause all of a sudden your inner ear can sense gravity again, which it hasn’t done for two weeks. At the same time you’re flying this vehicle that’s slamming into the atmosphere and heading towards the ground at an 18 degree flight path. You have to stay ahead of it.
B&W: Would it be accurate to say that the landing is as disorienting as the launch?
Kelly: Oh, yeah. But a big difference is that on the launch up, when we go into orbit, if all goes well, between the two of us we each throw one switch. And on our ascent we were fortunate that we didn’t have any anomalies at all. The launch phase is set up where the computer controls everything, and we pretty much just sit on our hands unless something goes wrong. Luckily nothing went wrong, so we basically sat on our hands for the first eight and a half minutes. We were cycling through displays and checking systems and ensuring that everything was going right, and except for one, we didn’t have to throw any switches or make any critical decisions. On entry, that’s not the case. Once you get below Mach 1, it’s a hand-flown vehicle and the commander flies it. The flight engineer is throwing some switches, and it’s a lot more of a hands-on experience coming in for entry than it is on ascent.
B&W: I guess you were aware that Discovery was the name of the spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Kelly: Yeah, we sure were. It’s kinda funny. We took DVDs and CDs for our spare time–which, it turns out, you have almost none of. Although we use the CD player and listen to music up there in space. I took some music that some friends gave me to take along. I think, amongst the whole crew, we flew eight or nine copies of 2001. We listened to a bunch of stuff–popular music, things from high school. A couple of others had CDs that friends had made of space-related tunes. We waived off for 90 minutes, which means we were supposed to come down on entry, but the weather wasn’t good enough for us [to land]. So we fired up the CD player with classical music and relaxed for a little while before getting ready to come down on the second landing revolution.
B&W: Shuttle missions include different nationalities, as well as both military personnel and civilians. Is there any type of military protocol, saluting, traditional things, followed on space missions?
Kelly: Not the typical military protocol of “yes sir” and “no sir,” saluting and those kind of things. However, there’s a lot of military tradition that’s been put into the space station. The first change of command ceremony [on the space station] from the Expedition One crew to the Expedition Two crew involved reading out of the ship’s log book and words spoken by all three of the commanders. There was a bell-ringing ceremony, which is a long naval tradition, that is done. So there’s been several really nice military traditions, primarily naval traditions, that have been incorporated into the special events that happen onboard the space station. But as far as day-to-day protocol, there’s not any of that.
B&W: Is there any Russian protocol recognized?
Kelly: Yeah, in Russian culture they’re really big on toasting, and that’s part of the ceremonies–toasting each other, toasting the ground. In this case, it wasn’t literally, obviously, with glasses or anything [laughs]. But they’re very gracious at doing that type of thing.
B&W: Any communication problems between the Russians and Americans?
Kelly: No, as a shuttle crew member it wasn’t required that I know Russian. The three cosmonauts we flew with were all fluent to different degrees in English, and I had no problem communicating with any of them. But our Expedition crew members that go up there [to the space station] to live and work are also fluent in different levels of Russian.
B&W: Are you ready to go to Mars?
Kelly: Oh, I’m ready [laughs]. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re ready yet. But hopefully sometime during my astronaut lifetime we’ll start heading back to the Moon and Mars. &