10, 9, 8, 7, 6… Our spaceship trembles with the ignition of three main engines, fueled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The initial rumble quickly builds to a roar, shaking my seat, the cabin, the entire rocket. Metal rattles on metal as the three motors muscle to full thrust — a million pounds of force straining upward.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1… As the countdown reaches zero, our two solid rocket boosters crash into life with a bone-jarring impact. My seatback gives me a brutal shove, and we lurch off the launch pad, balancing on a pillar of whitehot fire. Seven million pounds of rocket thrust shake my crew as we arc out over the Atlantic Ocean, rolling us heads-down in our seats for the climb to orbit.
After eight-and-a-half minutes of heart-stopping acceleration, the main engines fall silent. We are in orbit, freefalling around Earth at five miles per second.
I’m Eagle Scout — and astronaut — Tom Jones. On Feb. 7, 2001, four colleagues and I blasted off on the ultimate high-adventure outing. We took the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station (ISS).
Our mission: to deliver the schoolbus-size Destiny lab to the ISS.
Two-and-a-half years of intense training — and a lifetime of preparation — readied my STS-98 crew to put Destiny in space.
The sight of a space shuttle still sends a surge of excitement through me, 30 years after seeing my first rocket. Then I was a 10-year-old Cub Scout, growing up near Baltimore, Md. It was 1965, the height of the Space Race, and my pack was touring a nearby factory. I looked up — way up — to see two gleaming rockets, all shining steel and aluminum, towering 10 stories above us. These Titan II’s would carry the Gemini astronauts into orbit, and from that moment I wanted to ride a rocket.
As a Boy Scout I earned the then-new Space Exploration merit badge, and in 1969, the year I became an Eagle Scout with Troop 355, the first men walked on the moon. By then I was determined to follow their path to the stars.
After graduating from the Air Force Academy, I piloted B-52 bombers for five years, then headed back to the classroom. I earned a doctorate in planetary science, knowing that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had invited scientists and engineers, along with test pilots, to apply as astronauts for the new space shuttle. After science jobs with the Central Intelligence Agency and NASA, I became an astronaut candidate on my second try, in 1990.
By the time I strapped into Atlantis 11 years later, I had flown with three shuttle crews, scanning Earth from space with a powerful radar camera, launching and grappling science satellites from orbit, and serving as orbiter flight engineer.
ISS – THE HIGH-ADVENTURE BASE
On this, my fourth and last flight, I would lead three spacewalks to help deliver Destiny, the nerve center of the International Space Station.
The first piece of the ISS was launched in 1998. Visiting shuttle crews, and a few unmanned Russian rockets, continually added pieces. The outpost’s 16 international partners intend it to serve as an orbiting research facility, a “proving ground” for the people and machines that will eventually pioneer the solar system.
The ISS is already the largest orbiting object ever built: When completed in 2010, it will weigh nearly a million pounds and eventually house a crew of six in a roomy interior equal to that of a 747 jumbo jet.
At the rear of the ISS, a two-man crew bunks in the Zvezda (“Star” in Russian) service module. Just forward, the Zarya (“Sunrise”) module serves as a storage closet, housing spare parts, food, clothing, water and rocket fuel. With its six docking ports, the American Unity node links Russian and U.S. components. From its side sprouts the Quest airlock, front door for spacewalkers; above Unity stand the Z1 and P6 trusses, a tower of girders lifting the 240-foot solar arrays high above the station. The second of four solar wings arrived last September, attached to the station’s port side. Linked to Unity’s forward end is the Destiny lab, giving the outpost a length of 146 feet, nearly half a football field.
Six years ago, my crew had the critical mission of delivering this $1.4-billion, 32,000-pound module to its permanent home at the front of the ISS. This would be my most challenging shuttle mission, one I’d dreamed about since those early years as a Cub Scout.
BACKPACKING, 220 MILES UP
An expedition to Earth orbit feels very much like an extended backpacking trip: dehydrated trail food, few creature comforts, sacking out in sleeping bags (on the wall!) and fresh challenges each day.
Using the stars, radar, lasers and a computerized orbital map, we navigate slowly but surely to our destination. On Flight Day 3, Ken Cockrell and Mark Polansky steer Atlantis to a perfect docking, and soon we are shaking hands
and exchanging hugs in Unity with the first station crew, Expedition One (American Bill Shepherd and Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko). The eight of us would join forces to berth and activate Destiny.
The next morning, Marsha Ivins, our robot-arm operator, swings Destiny out of Atlantis’s cargo bay. Working her joysticks using only computer displays and TV cameras (our docking tunnel blocked her window view), she delicately nestles the gleaming lab against Unity’s forward hatch.
Now it is up to us spacewalkers. After more than 200 hours training together underwater in NASA’s six-million-gallon Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, I trust partner Bob “Beamer” Curbeam with my life.
Outside for the first time, I can feel the sun’s intense heat warming my arms and legs as I link power cables from the ISS to Destiny. As bulky as a refrigerator, but weightless in free fall, I am able to move about the handrails using just my fingertips. At first I feel as graceful as an elephant on ice skates, but with experience, working in free fall becomes easier than I expected.
THE HIGH POINT
A leaky valve in one of the lab’s cooling hoses engulfs Beamer in an ammonia snowstorm. Looking up, I see a glittering comet tail of frozen crystal catching sunlight against the black sky. My heart sinks — would we lose the lab’s coolant supply? But Beamer, spattered with toxic ammonia ice, stays calm as he quickly works through the emergency procedures.
Using strength and skill, he opens another valve that cuts off the flow of ammonia. We soon team up to get the leaky hose connected, and I am able to brush most of the frozen ammonia coolant from my friend’s spacesuit. The sun’s rays soon vaporize the rest. Our training and teamwork have paid off, and by the end of our spacewalk, Destiny’s systems are humming.
Our third spacewalk, four days later, takes Beamer and me to the high point of our adventure.
Climbing to the top of the ISS’s solar arrays, 90 feet above Atlantis, I take in the view. Beneath us, the intense blue of the ocean and its swirling white clouds roll by, 220 miles straight down. Earth’s horizon, a thousand miles distant, curves beneath a velvet-black sky. The ISS plows silently forward like a massive star cruiser, stretching its golden solar arrays wide to capture a flood of energy from the sun.
More than 30 years before, as a young Eagle Scout, I could only imagine such an emotional and physical peak. Now I am living it, not in some dream, but as an explorer, one of a team working to build this stepping-stone to the stars. And I know that other explorers — you, perhaps? — will one day reach past us.
The high adventure is just beginning.
Tom Jones, now an adult Scouter (his son is also an Eagle Scout), lived and worked nearly 53 days in space on his four shuttle missions. A scientist, writer and speaker, he has written “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir” (Smithsonian Books, 2006). Find more photos and mission information at www.AstronautTomJones.com.