Huntsville tethers International Space Station to Earth

single-meta-cal September 25, 2017

Shane Kimbrough has walked in space six times. So you’ll understand that he hasn’t had the movie “Gravity” as part of his Netflix queue.

“I do see most space movies,” he said. “That’s just one I don’t want to see, based on what I’ve heard.”

A “stroll” outside the International Space Station, in which Col. Shane Kimbrough lived on a mission that lasted from October 19, 2016, to April 10, 2017, is obviously a perilous adventure that “requires seven hours of absolute concentration,” as he says. (See Kimbrough’s “selfie” in the photo gallery below with his boots dangling toward Earth.) It necessitates a secure tether between the astronaut and the mothership.

There is a constant invisible tether between the International Space Station, 240 miles above Earth, and a little corner of Huntsville real estate.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with no regard for holidays, tornadoes or major bowl games, the Payload Operation Integrations Center at Marshall Space Flight Center is connected to the Space Station.

The people behind the astronauts

The 50-year-old Kimbrough, who has spent 189 days in space, visited the Payload Operation Integrations Center (POIC) last week for a reunion with the voices who were a part of his life aboard the Space Station. He held a brief media conference in a room from which visitors can see the POIC operation through large windows. On a couple of occasions, Kimbrough used the phrase “the people behind me.” That could be literal and figurative.

The POIC is “science central for the International Space Station,” as NASA’s Janet Anderson said. Experiments conducted on board are managed at the POIC. Since the ISS began operation in 2001, some 2,000 experiments have been conducted. It has truly been an international process, with more than 80 countries involved.

“The relationship between the astronaut and people in the POIC is important,” Kimbrough said. “They’re the ones driving most of our daily activities. As professional as they were, it was seamless to me.”

On the rare instance when something doesn’t work according to plan, “you need the expertise from the people there to smooth things over … We’re always asking questions of them, making sure we’re doing the right things.”

Kimbrough said that “50 percent of our day is spent with these folks.” Some of the work is planned, to do “research done for humanity in general.” Some of it is simple maintenance. As Kimbrough said, the ISS is “like a big office building floating around. Things break.”

Bon Appetit!

Kimbrough, who bounced back to Earth in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that landed on the ground rather than an ocean landing typical of American flights, said one of the more memorable experiments added to the astronauts’ dining pleasure.

The experiment was called “Veggie,” or “Vegetable Production System.” The astronauts were able to grow lettuce and radishes.

“There’s plenty of food (on the ISS) but it was nice to have fresh vegetables,” Kimbrough said. “We planted them and we watered them every day for four or six weeks. We had the leaves of lettuce we could harvest and eat.”

As Kimbrough noted, the capability to grow food in flight will be essential for deep space missions that could last for multiple years. And as those missions develop, Huntsville will play a major role.

“Marshall Space Flight Center is a huge part of the human spaceflight equation,” Kimbrough said. “The astronauts are in Houston but the Payload Center is here and as you know SLS (Space Launch System) is being designed and worked on here. Marshall has historically been the engine people, and that’s not going to change.

“It’s an incredible place in NASA history,” Kimbrough added, “and it’s relevant now.”

Photos courtesy of NASA