26 March 2009

"Po'yekhali!" My skype call with astronaut Mike Barratt at T minus two days

Exactly 90 minutes from now, my friend, NASA astronaut Mike Barratt, left, will be sitting on top of this Soyuz rocket, right, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, as it roars to life and shoots into space.

I still can't believe my luck that I got to have an hour-long skype video call with Mike on Tuesday night, and he said it was okay with him if I told you what we talked about.

He seemed physically relaxed in his spare, post-communist digs, though I could tell he had a lot going on in his head. For example, he told me that he will be the oldest person to do a first-time launch - he'll be celebrating his 50th birthday in space, on April 16th. Scattered throughout our conversation were many pieces of astronaut jargon, one of my favorites being that they call the launch 'lighting the candle'. We're close enough to April 16th now that I like to think of it as his first and biggest 50th birthday candle.

Mike's got a lot on his plate during his six months up there, not least preparing the station for the transition from a three-person crew to a six-person crew (double the crew, double the science!).

Speaking of science, Mike is a scientist (check out his textbook on space medicine) and will be carrying out lots of experiments aboard the space station - physiology and space medicine of course but he'll also be participating in NASA's vibrant Earth Observation program, photographing Earth as they circle it every 90 minutes.

Mike will capture images of a lot of places on Earth on his six months aboard the ISS, I'm sure, but he's going to pay special attention to the route of HMS Beagle, 1831-1836, which will also be the route of the new Beagle once she's built and launched. The plan - codified in an International Space Act Agreement between NASA and The Beagle Project - will see Mike's successors on the space station photographing the Beagle's position so that space imagery can be corellated directly with biological samping from ocean surface waters.

Mike will also be doing lots of educational work on station, like making videos for classrooms. He told me he's going to talk about the links between the historical voyages of discovery, like Endeavour and Beagle, and how they relate to our more recent voyages of discovery in space ...not just in terms of science but also in terms of personal experience. For example, there's a strong link between the cramped quarters on an historic sailing ship and the cramped quarters aboard the ISS. And during a recent 'shudder' aboard ISS, NASA compared the movement to a ship on a violent sea.

But for now, of course, Mike's focused on the launch itself and docking with the ISS, and so am I. I'll be watching live on NASA TV ..and tweeting like mad!

At the end of our call, I asked him, 'So, what do I say? In the US I know you are supposed to wish astronauts 'Godspeed' but what do the cosmonauts say?'

'Po'yekhali', he told me. 'It means, simply, "let's go!"'

Note: if you miss it live on NASA TV, you can watch the recorded content here. It seems to be posted pretty soon after the actual event. For example, yesterday's pre-launch press conference is up (and is a real gem).

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