Saturday, May 29, 2010


A picture of men at work. Two astronauts (Michael Good on the left, Garret Reisman on the right) peek through the windows of the aft flight deck of the space shuttle Atlantis, before heading off to install batteries and other equipment to the exterior of the International Space Station. Your average everyday experience, in low Earth orbit (can you name, off the top of your head, every astronaut who has spacewalked? Can you even hazard a guess at the number?* We shouldn't be complacent about the amazingly difficult, dangerous and technically awesome feat of building and maintaining and space station. It's still not exactly a routine human experience, but we have been a space-going species for a couple of generations, now).

What I'm especially interested in are the controls in the foreground (check out the full-resolution photo here). Not just the clunky electromechanical switches and joystick, set in battleship-grey utilitarian panels, although it does remind us that Atlantis is 34 years old, built when prog rock and flares were still in fashion, and personal computers, mobile phones, iPads and cyberspace weren't even science fictional concepts; and here we are in the future, with spaceships designed forty-odd years ago just reaching retirement, and how science-fictional is that? No, what's especially interesting is the human clutter, the solutions to work-a-day problems. The patches of blue velcro stuck at intervals on every surface. The propelling pencil on the right, with its velcro collar. The two lab timers, with cryptic felt-pen identifying codes. The Post-it notes. The human clutter - the gnarl, the telling details that bring a scene alive. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner with Al Reynolds and French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré, who flew two missions on the Mir space station. One detail especially sticks in my mind. The Russians sent up fresh food to their space station in automated Progress resupply vehicles; when the airlock was opened after the Progress vehicle had docked, the unbearably evocative smell of apples, of the planet Earth, filled the air.

[edit] *a list of spacewalking astronauts
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