Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.
“Alpha, Houston, we have you on TDRS West, and should be picking you up on KU any minute now.”
“Copy that,” came the routine reply from the Space Station — and then astronaut Bill McArthur broke the rhythm. “You know, sometimes I worry that you’ll come on in the morning and sound like HAL from “2001.” ‘Dave, I’m not quite myself this morning.’” McArthur, settling into place in front of a camera, did a dead-on imitation of Douglas Rain, the actor who provided the flat, haunting voice of the HAL 9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
McArthur and his crewmate, Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, were offered up to us for an interview because today is five years since astronauts began living on the space station full-time. For the last 1,826 days, no matter what, there have been at least two human beings in orbit. McArthur and Tokarev, who were launched October 1, are the twelfth crew.
“I think we’ve learned a lot related to how we keep astronauts and cosmonauts healthy for long durations; we’ve learned a lot about how we assemble large structures off the surface of the earth,” said McArthur.
“If we can’t ensure that astronauts and cosmonauts are healthy when they land on the surface of Mars, well, certainly then you have to ask, ‘What’s the point?’”
I asked how quickly they get used to being weightless, whether they ever leave a pen hanging in midair. McArthur smiled and said no, they do just the opposite.
“You learn very quickly that if you use your Earth-based habits, then you can spend an awful lot of time trying to find it later. One thing that’s different in the Station than from the Shuttle — the Station is so large that it’s quite easy to lose things.” So there’s Velcro all over the place, and crews become very deliberate about putting the same thing — pens included — against the same wall every time.
The two men bobbed slowly up and down as they talked. Next week, they’ll make a space walk (McArthur’s third, Tokarev’s first) to install a camera on the station’s outer frame; they let the bulky, 37-pound camera float in front of them, steering it with their fingertips.
What’s spacewalking like? “It really does give you a tremendous sense of freedom,” said McArthur. My analogy is if you go on vacation in the mountains, and you’re in a nice little cabin. You walk into the living room, look out the window at the mountains and they’re beautiful. But then you walk outside and look at the mountains, and you have this vast panorama, and it’s just breathtaking. And that’s what doing a spacewalk is like.”
I’ve interviewed astronauts in flight before, and found that unless there’s a pressing issue that’s come up, they’re rarely in a position to talk about anything but the here-and-now of their work. After we were through with our allotted twelve minutes, a radio reporter tried to ask about that small blow-up in September, when NASA’s chief, Michael Griffin, had been asked whether the space station had been a mistake. “That’s a pretty interesting question. I love being asked to second-guess my boss,” was about all McArthur would give him.
I looked at the two men, with a jumble of cables around them, and thought how different the picture looked from the sterile images the world expected when “2001” was released back in 1968. Dave Bowman, the fictional astronaut in the film, was almost killed on the way to Jupiter by a psychotic computer; Bill McArthur, the real astronaut, talks about misplacing computer memory cards. In 2005, we are a long way from “2001.” Bill McArthur’s voice is not flat.
As he talked, a pen slowly floated across the picture.