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An Incredible Air and Space Adventure
Written by A. Forrer. (Edited by Jane Reifert)  

Click on photos to enlarge
Chapter Five - The Hydrolab
Thursday, May 30th - Hydrolab
My last day at Star City would bring the ultimate finale: An EVA in the Hydrolab. I have been thinking about this one for a long time and worried that I might drown due to malfunctioning gear or because of me having a panic attack. On the way to Star Hydrolab, Cosmonaut training at Star City RussiaCity I went once again through all the possible scenarios, but this time I had the benefit of having worked with the Russians on several occasions this week and seen with my own eyes how professional they were and how well maintained their equipment is. So in all honesty, there was little to zero chance for malfunctioning equipment, besides just yesterday NASA astronauts used the same gear. So if it is safe enough for NASA, I really shouldn't worry.  As far as my own nerves were concerned, well I just had to relax, which was easier said than done of course. The Russians had no concerns whatsoever. They argued that if I didn't get claustrophobic in the centrifuge (where I did not have any problems really) and made it through the physical rigors of the zero G flight, then this should be a walk in the park in comparison. True, but still it remained a mind game.

Lulu Santos, Brazilian pop starAfter arrival at the lab you guessed it, another medical check. The doctor was very nice and in his upper fifties. His eyes spoke of a man with great experience and intelligence. I felt good, even though the translator had to relay our conversation. Once he realized I was a certified scuba diver, his concerns almost immediately went away. I wish I would have felt the same way...Then we had a briefing with the crew chief for the technicians. He explained, that there would be two safety divers at all times plus one camera diver (turns out, there were actually two camera divers, as I had my own one added to the equation as well, but Hydrolab rules stated, that all actions had to be taped separately by their own diver as well). An umbilical will provide communication, water for the suits 'A/C' system and air to breathe. Three backup tanks in the suit could be turned on by me in an emergency and would supply me with additional 18 minutes. That should suffice to have the divers hoist me out of the 12m deep pool. After all I couldn't do that myself anymore as the suit itself weighed 400 pounds and is not (like a diver's jacket) inflatable to the point that it would make me raise. There were other differences to the world of diving: Obviously no fins, as a matter of fact, the legs can't really be moved at all (and they shouldn't!); all work and 'walking' is done by use of your hands. Furthermore weights would balance me in a 45-degree head forward position, ideal for working on objects like the ISS.

Hydrolad, Cosmonaut Training at Star CityOnce briefed, it was time to put on the cooling garment and the headset for comm. That was easy, then came the less fun part: Climbing into the suit. It really was more like trying to climb into a suitcase or coffin for that matter: The suit was hanging in its own support structure. It opened like a door in the back, so I had to climb onto the suit, then carefully dangle my legs into the openings. Finally the rear followed. Then the cables for comm and EKG monitoring were connected and before the torso and face found their niches the arms went into the suit's openings. Once in, it was incredibly tight and uncomfortable. I felt really unhappy and expressed that via intercom. They told me it would get better, but before it would get worse: They closed the rear and I had to inflate the pressure of the suit. Since I couldn't do a proper Valsalva maneuver with my nose (it was unreachable for my gloved hands behind the glass) I had to push my nose down onto a little 'chair' in the suit that pinched it shut enough for me to equalize pressure with my ears. This is something you do as a diver only a few times while going down, here I had to do it over 20 times. Finally things improved: The additional air and pressure inflated the suit and things weren't as tight anymore. Also the suit technicians adapted the length of it to my body and I wasn't crammed in so much anymore. It was still narrow, but comfy, my legs relaxed like sitting loosely in a saddle. The temperature control worked nicely and together with the fresh air, it cooled my thoughts and me. This could be fun!

Hydrolab, Space Adventures, Star City RussiaAfter a final deep look by the doctor into my eyes, they lifted me with the crane over the edge of the pool and down we went. Via intercom they tell me to grab the rope going to the bottom of the pool. I do so and continue to equalize pressure. Once at the bottom, I have to adjust the suit to its new environment by setting its pressure gauge to 1.4. From now on it is calibrated and will maintain this pressure on its own unless there is a leak.

Now the divers start to balance my suit. I watch them through the window and feel immediate comfort in their professional moves. They are so efficient and quiet, you realize, that they have been here hundreds of times and know exactly what they're doing. It feels tremendously reassuring and the joy begins to build. Knowing, that my life depends on them at this stage, it is reassuring to see them operate so cool and collected.

They're now taking me over to the side of the FGB module of ISS and I have to perform my EVA along the length of the module. This is all done with my arms and two tethers. My instructor told me on a previous dry walk around the module (they lifted the whole module via its movable platform out of the water for that) that I had to be tethered to the station by two supports at all times. That could be either two tethers or one tether and one hand while the other hand moves the second tether forward. Sounds easy enough, but is in reality a lot of work. One has to stay really focused not to get the tethers criss-crossed and by doing so shortening their range. A couple of times I realize, that I would violate the two support points rule, but only for a brief moment and I get away with it. Later at the debriefing they even praised me for being so strict with this rule, hmm.

Moving this way is also very intense as the whole body mass seems to drift off constantly into another direction, not unlike space, but there the resistance is probably a lot less than being in water. I have been told to pace myself and call for breaks if needed. The point is to keep a regular heart beat rate and not to stress oneself. If you don't do it by yourself, they will actually command you to stop working. The day before I heard Bowersox and Thomas breathe like marathon runners and it scared the heck out of me, after all these guys are in really good shape. So each time it is getting a bit tough I let the team know to hold off for a moment while my heart rate goes back to normal. With that restraint things are actually fairly easy; I rarely stress and the breaks themselves can be kept short. The doctors are happy. :-)

About twenty minutes into the EVA I reach the point on ISS where I have to install a mockup TV camera. Installing it is rather simple, but positioning myself to do so is really the trick as I'm at the end of an arm (Linenger on Strela comes to my mind, hehehe) and have to hold on to it and the camera arm. But eventually I get it all squared away. The ground reminds me to lock the camera in place. I hadn't forgotten, but wanted to make sure I interpret the Russian letters the right way. It was written in English too, but that was out of sight for my angle, so I relied on my 5 words Russian vocabulary...

Once complete I EVA back to the entrance hatch and we call it a day. The original plan was to ingress via the hatch, but I'm too tired and as a diver I never liked 'caves' much. I tell them over the intercom of my change in plan and Marina lets me know, that although they're ok with my decision, the chief instructor didn't appreciate his Russian air lock being compared to a cave.The divers take me up, hang me on the crane and after a short while I have ground under my feet and am surrounded by all the applauding technicians. Some cameras are stuffed into my face and they insist on first impressions. Then the doc whisks me away and hands me his homebrewed cup of herb tea. Not that I like tea a lot, but it is an offer you can't refuse. I get undressed and the doc insists on me taking a sauna. Well, I handle cool temps normally quite well (as a kid I spent hours on end underwater while everybody else's lips turned blue), but the opportunity of having a sauna in Russia can't be let go by.

As I sit in the small wooden cabin, watching the coals crackle, my thoughts go to all the great names that have sat here before. Even Ol' Linenger must at some point in his career have sat right on the spot where my bones are slowly warming up again.

The doc steps by every two minutes, afraid I'm having a negative reaction, but I'm all smiles. Eventually it is time for a shower. The divers are already in there. Having been to the army that doesn't bother me a bit, but the divers seem to leave rather hastily, hehehe.

After, it is off to yet another great lunch. To my disappointment there is no wine at the table, now that I'm off duty. Oh well, can't fall asleep in the afternoon, where we spend some time in a Buran mockup, which is inside the planetarium. Once they run their Zeiss projector the stars roll by the windows and one gets the impression of actually navigating through space. Simply awesome!

Before we have to say our goodbyes I lay down an artificial rose at Gagarin's statue. The rose originally came from a shop near Houston's MOCR. The Russians are touched by the symbolism.

On the ride back to the hotel many thoughts about the past week go through my head and I realize how my respect and adoration for the real guys has increased after I got a glimpse at how though the real deal can be.

Tomorrow I'll finally have some hours to visit some space museums in Moscow, but before that it is time to party and finally taste some of Russia's finest vodkas: Keep those Stoli glasses frosted!

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