National Geographic : 2017 Aug
74 NaTIoNal GeoGRapHIc • aUGUsT 2017 An unusual and unmistakable smell hits me. Slightly burned, slightly metallic. It reminds me of the smell of sparklers on the Fourth of July: the smell of space. behaving as expected—and that we are ready to abort if required. Once it’s close enough, my crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti will grapple it with the station’s robot arm. This is a glacially slow and deliberate process, and this is one of the many things that’s very different between movies and real life. In the films Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey, a visiting spacecraft zips up to a space station and locks onto it; then a hatch pops open and people pass through, all over the course of about 90 seconds. In reality we operate with the knowledge that one spacecraft is always a potentially fatal threat to another—a bigger threat the closer it gets—and so we move slowly and deliberately. Samantha will operate the robot arm from the robotics workstation in the Cupola. Terry Virts, the only other American on board, will be her backup, and I will be helping out with the approach and rendezvous procedures. Terry and I squeeze into the Cupola with Samantha, watching the data screen over her shoulder that shows the speed and position of Dragon. Like me, Terry was a test pilot before joining NASA—in his case, with the Air Force. His call sign is Flanders, after the lovably square character Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. Terry has the positive attributes of Ned Flanders—optimism, enthusiasm, friendliness—and none of the negative ones. I’ve found him to be consistently competent, and I appreciate that as a leader he is a consensus builder rather than an authoritarian. Since I’ve been up here, he has always been respectful of my previous experience, always open to suggestions about how to do things better rather than getting defensive or competitive. He loves baseball, so there is always a game on somewhere on the station, especially when the Astros or the Orioles are playing. I’ve gotten used to the rhythm of the nine-inning games marking time for a few hours of our workdays. Samantha is one of the few women to have served as a fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, and she is unfailingly competent in everything technical. She is also friendly and quick to laugh, and among her many other qualifications to fly in space, she has a rare talent for language. She has native-level fluency in English and Russian (the two official languages of the ISS) as well as French, German, and her native Italian. She is also working on learning Chinese. For some people who hope to fly in space, language can be a challenge. We all have to be able to speak a second language (I’ve been studying Russian for years, and my cosmonaut crewmates speak English much better than I speak Russian), but the European and Japanese astronauts have the added burden of learning two languages if they don’t already speak English or Russian. For Samantha this wasn’t a problem. In fact her Russian and English are both so good that she sometimes acts as an interpreter between cosmonauts and astronauts if we have to talk about something nuanced or complicated.