HOUSTON, March 9, 2017 —
When retired Army Col. Mark Vande Hei blasts off into space later this year for a five-month mission aboard the International Space Station, he'll be proud to play a part in helping advance the human race.
But what he really can't wait for, he said, is the stellar view from 200 miles above Earth, where the space station orbits the planet every 90 minutes.
In 2010, a cupola was installed on the station. It's a multi-windowed observatory module that offers 360-degree views of the blue planet. Inside, astronauts use various levers and controls to perform tasks like using the station's robotic arm to pull in routine supply loads launched into space.
They can also take time to reflect on the Earth's beauty.
"I'm actually looking forward to seeing what it's like to see the planet from a different perspective," said Vande Hei, 50, who retired last year from the Army where he served as a Ranger-tabbed combat engineer.
Orbiting the Earth
The sight of Earth is so breathtaking, it brought tears to the eyes of a fellow astronaut the first time he peered out of the cupola, Vande Hei said. Once he gets that chance, the former colonel believes, he will finally see Earth as it really is -- an island in the huge ocean of space.
"Hopefully, [I'll be] getting a better understanding of what it means to be a human being on planet Earth," he said.
But Vande Hei will be doing more than just sightseeing. With Russia choosing to send just one cosmonaut on the upcoming mission after deciding to reduce its footprint at the space station due to financial reasons, Vande Hei has taken on more duties. They include serving as the co-pilot of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that now ferries American astronauts into space since NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011.
"Once we lost that other Russian, I had to jump into that co-pilot seat," Vande Hei said, adding that another NASA astronaut has also joined the mission. "Instead of being kind of a passenger, I'm really helping that commander fly that spacecraft. That is a huge change in responsibilities."
Vande Hei's mission was originally locked in for this March, but it had to be postponed to mid-September so he could train for a few months in Russia. That extra time also allowed him to learn more Russian, which will help him communicate with the spacecraft's Russian commander.
Like other astronauts preparing to go to space, Vande Hei must undergo an extensive training regimen. Last week, he spent a six-hour session submerged underwater at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The lab boasts one of the world's largest pools. At more than 200 feet long and 40 feet deep, it's big enough to hold a replica of the space station. Using a specialized spacesuit that simulates microgravity, Vande Hei floated around the mock station, practicing replacing large nickel hydrogen batteries with lithium-ion ones, a task he may have to perform as part of a spacewalk.
The next day, he trained on an advanced resistive exercise device, which astronauts use to prevent muscle loss while they're weightless in space. Astronauts can simulate free-weight exercises in normal gravity using the device's adjustable resistance piston-driven vacuum cylinders that provide a lift load of up to 600 pounds.
"It's vitally important. It's one of our biggest countermeasures on orbit to mitigate bone loss and muscle atrophy," said Staci Latham, an astronaut strength, conditioning and rehabilitation specialist who is helping train Vande Hei.
According to a NASA fact sheet, astronauts can lose up to 15 percent of their muscle volume if they don't exercise in space.
"They would start to degrade," Latham said, adding that muscle lost in space could be impossible to regain once back on Earth.
Before heading into space, astronauts will train with Latham 16 times in personal one-hour sessions to ensure they know how to use the machine. While in space, astronauts will typically spend 2.5 hours each day exercising for six days a week, she said.
Vande Hei plans to use his Army teamwork skills while he works as part of the six-person team tasked with maintaining the space station and conducting science experiments. After all, being stuck for months inside the station -- about the size of a six-bedroom home -- can present difficulties if people can't get along.
"You can drive each other crazy really easily," he said. "So it's really important that people who do this job are people who can have fun while isolated from the rest of humanity for an extended period of time."
That level of teamwork must also be reflected among the many employees at NASA and other agencies who work together to make space travel possible, Vande Hei said.
"No astronaut could have gotten to the moon without thousands of people working to make that spacecraft work properly," he said. "I feel honored to be in that position, but I also feel very humbled that I'm in a situation where I really could not be in without a lot of other people helping me out."
Upon his return to Earth, which is currently slated for late February 2018, Vande Hei said he hopes to work as a capsule communicator in mission control. It's a job he has done before, but this time he will be able to draw on his own experience to guide the astronauts who follow in his footsteps.
(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)