WASHINGTON Space shuttle commander George Zamka sat still for about 20 minutes at NASA headquarters here to recount the successful February flight of STS-130, among the last of the U.S. shuttle missions. Zamka and his Endeavour crew were spending a few days "in the barrel," the astronauts' phrase for press tours, but they also found time to visit U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
|Shuttle Endeavour commander George Zamka is already thinking about his next flight|
Decompression from a 13-day trip to the International Space Station takes awhile, even when you're a space veteran. "You're operating at a high duty cycle right up until 'wheels stop'," said Zamka, referring the moment the shuttle rolls to a stop on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (The adjustment to gravity also included sore calf muscles and recalibrating the gyroscope in his head after inner ear problems caused some dizziness.)
Like all shuttle flights to the space station, the Endeavour crew was immersed in assembly tasks that are unique to the cargo they are delivering. In the case of STS-130, it was the last major section of the station known as the Tranquility Node. But the real highlight was the installation of a downward-facing cupola that provided views of Earth previously seen only by moon and space walkers.
The Marine Corps colonel, test pilot and Naval Academy graduate admits that he got a little misty-eyed when he took in the view from the cupola -- and who wouldn't? The panorama out the bay windows from Earth orbit reminded the shuttle astronauts just how fast they were moving, and "there's such a bevy of colors going by," Zamka recalled.
Nearly all the astronauts have found it frustratingly difficult to describe the magnificent view from space (Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders perhaps came closest: "The pictures don't do it justice, because they always have this frame around them. When you put your eyeball to the window of the spacecraft, you can essentially see half the universe.")
Zamka agreed that pictures don't suffice, simply fail to register the stark contrast between the stunning colors of the Earth and the blacker-than-black sky. But the listener could sense the emotion in Zamka's voice when he attempted to describe the view.
With the end of 30-year-old U.S. shuttle program approaching, the entire U.S. astronaut corps has to figure out what to do next. Russian Soyuz rockets will continue to ferry American crews to the space station, and Zamka hints that he wants to go back. "Right now I'm taking stock," he said when asked what's next. "For me, it's acquiring a new set of skills," including the ability to operate robotic arms used for space station assembly and maintenance. "It's like starting all over again."
Zamka, 47, has flown twice on the shuttle, completing nearly 500 laps around the Earth. STS-130 was his first command. He spoke fondly of his time on the space station and how difficult it was to close the hatch and return to Earth after installing the new node and the cupola. Working on the space station "is kind of like going to school," Zamka said. The shuttle crew is "running 100 miles per hour" trying to stay ahead of their mission check list while the space station astronauts work at a more leisurely pace. The primary reason is that the orbiting crew has had time adjust to zero gravity and have worked out all their daily procedures in order to achieve maximum efficiency.
Unlike their shuttle guests, the space station crew was in no particular hurry.
But time was a luxury Commander Zamka didn't have. "You're constantly thinking about the next event" on the mission check list, he recalled. Even on-orbit press conferences required considerable traffic management just to get the seven-member shuttle crew and the four-person space station crew framed in the camera.
Despite being keyed up throughout the mission (the launch was delayed a day by weather), Zamka said he slept reasonably well in space. One of his experiments was to wear a watch outfitted with an accelerometer so NASA doctors could track how much sleep he was getting while in orbit.
Asked about the current political upheaval over the future of U.S. manned space flight, Zamka said it was a worthwhile debate.
The NASA press officer ends the interview, and Zamka has a moment for a few pictures before he's off to another meeting. For now, Zamka said he'll continue working in NASA's shuttle branch to ensure that the remaining three flights are successful. Then he's likely headed back to training and, the astronaut and explorer hopes, back to the space station and beyond.