The Ultimate "Offshore" Passage
An astronaut and sailor aboard the International Space Station explains the curious similarities between sailing through space and cruising the blue expanses of Earth aboard his Morgan 41, Resound!.
The lack of gravity and buoyancy in space affects how gases mix-or not-as the case may be. Many are familiar with the dangers of propane, which, being heavier than air, sinks into the bilge and results in a dangerously high concentration. In weightlessness, the concentration would occur around the leak point, and only the much slower process of diffusion would move things around. This means that the oxygen you breathe would be locally consumed and that the CO2 you exhale would accumulate around you if not for forced air movement. For water and any other fluid you care about, such as fuels and coolants, there's no gravity-driven separation, flow, or sump action. If you want gases and fluids to move, you have to move them. As such, pumps and fans abound, and the background sound of water against the hull is replaced by the constant drone of rotating machinery.
If you want to feel the wind in your face up here, you get in front of a fan outlet. If you want to see our version of the bilge, get in front of a fan inlet. It's amazing what accumulates in these grates, which require periodic cleaning punctuated by the occasional satisfaction of finding something that's been missing for several days.
And who's not had memorable experiences with the venerable marine head? On Resound!, we have the fairly common rule that nothing goes in there unless you've eaten or drunk it first, with the exception of a small amount of approved tissue. On the I.S.S., at least for the liquids, you or your shipmates may have drunk them already several times, but since we only recycle the liquid, we don't worry so much about clogging. Solids are collected and compacted, then burned up in the atmosphere along with other trash.
If you think using a marine head in a seaway is a persnickety business, imagine a zero-gravity toilet in which nothing falls. We depend on directed airflow to move things along. Just as at sea, discipline, alignment, timing, and technique count.
Much of our food here on the I.S.S. would be very familiar to the cruising sailor. Balanced nutritional requirements, long storage life, and ease of preparation guide food selection. We have limited freezer space, which is pretty much dedicated to preserving scientific samples (read: bits of us) for return to Earth and analysis. Food is mostly of the "heat and eat" variety, coming largely in cans and foil pouches. The pinnacle of cooking for us is rehydrating freeze-dried food packets with hot water. Visiting vehicles, such as the U.S. space shuttle and Russian Soyuz spacecraft and Progress freighter, might bring a small parcel of fresh fruit and vegetables, which we savor for a few days. But in general, the food is actually quite good and, I think, made better by the centuries-old ritual of the crew gathering around the galley table and swapping stories.
The Sensory Experience
Like most sailors, I relish the sensations of being at sea: the familiar sights of confined habitation in the midst of something much bigger, the motion of the boat, the sounds of water slapping against the hull and wind in the rigging, the aroma of salt air. Whether docked or under way at night, I awaken every so often to look, listen, feel, smell, and get a sense that all is in order. Like any ship big or small, the I.S.S. is alive with sights, sounds, smells, and vibrations. During the first few weeks on board, I'd often awaken during our sleep time to, in a similar fashion, test the senses and occasionally just float through the station.
Just as it is aboard a cruising boat at sea, it's the presence of something unusual or the absence of something expected that now rouses me from sleep in space. One big difference is that our overall motion through space is imperceptible. The surrounding ocean dictates the motion of the boat, whereas we are freefalling while maintaining a steady altitude around Earth aboard the I.S.S.. The station does rotate, so it always flies belly to Earth, but this motion is slow, about four degrees per minute, and isn't noticeable to us.
Leaving the Cockpit
I had the opportunity to perform a couple of space walks, or what we call in our jargon extravehicular activity. Having several times been on the bottom side of my boats for repairs or servicing while snorkeling or with scuba gear, I'd expected the E.V.A. to be similar to diving on a boat. However, the experience was overwhelmingly reminiscent of working aloft. You and all your tools must be tethered. You certainly don't want to come loose, and if you "drop" something, it can become one of those pieces of orbital debris that might meet you later on in less-than-friendly circumstances. You also have to position yourself just right to optimize your work space, which might require some uncomfortable contortions.
The real eye-opener came during my first E.V.A. when I had to perch on the end of a telescoping boom attached to the Russian end of the station and be extended above the modules to take photos of the antennas we'd just installed. The Strela arm, as it's called, has a bit of wobble to it when fully extended that reminded me of being up the mast in a slight breeze. I looked down at our commander who was controlling the arm with a hand crank and thought immediately of one of my teenagers on the halyard winch. Like being up the mast, you get a great view once you've overcome the jitters. But for me, the water was over 200 nautical miles below, with continental coastlines and cloud patterns visible. It was one of the more breathtaking experiences of this humble sailor's life!
And there are those moments: sunsets, sunrises, and impossibly bright night skies, just as at sea. Because our orbits take about 90 minutes, we circumnavigate 16 times a day, so you might think that we'd grow indifferent to these events. But the moments come when we take a break from our tight work schedules and actually realize where we are, then pause to take it all in from the windows. From here, Earth, dominated by the seas, is indescribably beautiful. I have a few vivid memories of seeing shooting stars from the deck of my boat at night, always and ever a thrill. One night several weeks ago, I got up to float through the station, which is artificially darkened for sleep periods, and parked myself by a window during an entire night pass. I took in the stars above the horizon, lightning storms on the surface below, and, toward the end, saw a meteorite streak by. But this time, it was below me, against the background of Earth.
There are so many aspects of sailing that connect with spaceflight. Both experiences expand our reach and bring us into unique worlds. Both domains make us acutely aware of our resources and more appreciative of a well-balanced system in which there's little margin for error. And both turn friends and acquaintances into working crew and shipmates. I'll conclude by noting that most CW readers are probably much readier for spaceflight than they may have ever imagined.
Mike Barratt wrote and submitted this story during his first tour of duty aboard the I.S.S. last year. He's currently training to return for his next mission, which is due to blast off (on the last flight of the shuttle Discovery) in early November.