ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang well prepared for Alissé

Christer Fuglesang portrait
14 August 2009

If everything goes according to plan the Space Shuttle Discovery will launch on 24 August at 07:58 CEST. Amongst the crew will be the Swedish ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang, who spoke to journalists in Stockholm on Thursday evening via a live television link.

The entire crew goes into quarantine on Monday, to minimise the risk of becoming ill and to acclimatise to the altered daily rhythms they will be subjected to during their trip into space. Thursday’s press conference, where journalists had gathered at three NASA centres and at World Television in Stockholm, was the last opportunity to interview the crew before take-off.

STS-128 Space Shuttle Commander Rick Sturckow introduced Christer Fuglesang:

”Christer is a physicist and ESA astronaut. Christer has previously flown on the STS-116 mission where he carried out three spacewalks. On our mission Christer will have the responsibility for the unloading of the payload module MPLM, a very important task that forms the major part of our mission. He will also carry out a couple of spacewalks and we are really happy to have Christer flying with us.”

Weightlifter in zero gravity

Olivas and Fuglesang about to start spacewalk training
John Olivas and Christer Fuglesang are lowered into the water for spacewalk training

During one of his two planned spacewalks Fuglesang will remove and retrieve one of the Station’s old external ammonia tanks. The tank is the heaviest object that has ever been handled by a person manually in space. But how can a person actually deal with a tank as large as a small car by hand?

”The ammonia tank weighs 800 kg. Holding it isn’t a problem. Preventing it from starting to rotate, getting it into the cargo hold of the Space Shuttle and getting it to move in exactly the direction we want it to, all pose difficulties. It is manageable, but it also provides extra motivation for working-out in the gym,” said Fuglesang.

Another challenge is how to install the cables that are to be run externally across the Space Station in order to prepare Unity for the arrival of the European-built Node 3, scheduled for next year.

“We have planned in minute detail, as we do for everything we are to do in space. We have practiced in the pool, for example. At the beginning I feared that it would be difficult, but after all the training I feel calm,” says Fuglesang.

“Getting the cables out is like unpacking the Christmas tree lights from the box,” explains John 'Danny' Olivas, who will be on this spacewalk with Fuglesang. “But this strand of lights is almost 20 metres long, we have no stepladder and we are working in zero gravity.”

Ambassador for international cooperation

Fuglesang during STS-128 preflight training
ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang during STS-128 preflight training

There was also great interest in the Swedish astronaut from the American media at the press conference and he was asked a lot of questions. On one occasion he was asked about his thoughts on what his journey into space means for Swedish people and his views on the Station now being more international than ever before.

”Interest in my flight is beginning to build again. The last time, in 2006, there was enormous interest in Sweden. I am really looking forward to returning to the Station again. Now it is nearly completed and is even more international than previously. My colleague from ESA, Frank De Winne from Belgium is there, one Canadian, two Russians and the Americans. Recently there was a Japanese crewmember,” says Fuglesang.

Now the launch is approaching and the more time that passes the more the astronauts are focusing on the mission and beginning to screen out everything else. Even if spaceflight in itself carries certain risks, Fuglesang is not concerned about these.

“I do not feel at all nervous and do not tangibly think about the risks. The risks are only abstract, numerical statistics. You concentrate on what has to be done and on preparing yourself.”

Almost the real thing

Christer Fuglesang during STS-128 preflight training
ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang during STS-128 preflight training

In recent weeks the astronauts have been busy carrying out a type of dress rehearsal of the launch itself. First they practiced different emergency drills so that they are well prepared if something should happen when they are in the Shuttle on the launch pad.

“We should be able to jump into a type of basket that quickly deploys and glides us several hundred metres away. We then jump into a bunker or drive away in an armoured car,” explains Fuglesang.

”We ended the week with a launch simulation. We wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, get into our spacesuits, check that they are airtight, go out to the special bus and are driven out to the launch pad. Then we ride up to the top where we go in, take up our places and close the doors. When there were five seconds of the countdown remaining there was a warning: 'Attention, the engines have not started properly' and we had to evacuate. Unfortunately we didn’t get to descend in the baskets. That would have been a fun ride!”

Spinal elongation

STS-128 crew during training
STS-128 crew during training

Christer Fuglesang will take part in several medical experiments during and after his journey into space, including examining how astronauts sleep and how their bodies are affected by weightlessness.

“Immediately after landing I will sit in a track-and-tilt chair so that they can study how my balance organs react. On the Space Station Nicole (one of NASA’s astronauts) will measure how the length of my spine changes.”

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