Thursday, May 6, 2004
“You wake up six hours before launch—if you managed to sleep at all the night before,” says NASA astronaut, Navy captain and former test pilot Daniel Bursch. Bursch, 46, is a veteran of four space flights who has logged more than 227 days in space. He currently holds the US flight endurance record of 196 days in space, along with fellow astronaut Carl Walz.
He didn’t sleep well the night before his first mission in 1993.
“You wonder, how well will I perform? And how sick will I feel once I’m in space?
“We usually get in the shuttle about three hours before launch,” he continues. “You put your launch and entry suit on—our orange suits. You’re waiting to get on the Space Shuttle at the 195-foot level. You can hear hissing sounds coming from the shuttle because it’s fuelled and ready to go. They strap you in and then they close the hatch and drive away. Then you think, ‘What am I doing here?’ You’re getting into this machine that seems almost alive.”
The clock reads nine minutes until takeoff.
“And then you’re totally focused,” he says.
Then you’re launched into space.
Initially, there’s a lot of motion. It’s a strange, bumpy ride. Bursch tells people it feels like launching off an aircraft carrier, only the acceleration lasts longer.
“My wife says, ‘Yeah, Dan, most people know what it feels like to launch off an aircraft carrier.’”
The shuttle goes from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in 8.5 minutes. At eight and a half minutes, the engine stops and weightlessness begins. There’s no forward lurching movement. Everything instantly floats.
“You’re accelerating and then you’re floating,” Bursch says. “It’s odd.”
Today Bursch is on the ground, sitting in the sun on a bench at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he’s serving a two-year assignment as an instructor in the Space Systems Academic Group.
He looks smaller than the astronaut in the pictures wearing a white NASA space suit and helmet.
Bursch earned a master’s degree at NPS in ‘91. To date, he’s the first and only NPS grad to live aboard the International Space Station—where he spent six months of his life after graduation.
There isn’t much free time on the Space Station, after performing experiments and tests, exercising two hours a day, and cleaning the structure. In what little personal time they have, some astronauts shoot photos or videos. Another taught himself to play guitar. Some read books or watch DVDs. During his free time, Burch wove baskets in space.
Bursch compares a shuttle mission, which usually runs about 10 days, to a sprint, and a space station mission to a marathons. He says he misses aspects of both.
“I would really like to fly in space again, but we may only have 30 missions left and there are some astronauts who haven’t had the opportunity,” he says.
I ask him what’s the most common question people ask him about living in space.
“The bathroom question,” he says. “Basically we use airflow instead of water. But normally when people ask how do you go to the bathroom in space, I just say, ‘Very carefully.’”
“It takes a while to learn to do the basic things,” Bursch says.
Like getting dressed. “You go to your locker, but once you open your locker things start to float out. So you try to stick them all in one arm. It’s kind of like when you unload the dryer without a laundry basket.”
Bathing involves adding water (all liquids have to be contained in space, so water comes in a silver package) and rinse-free cleanser to a washcloth, and doing it quickly, so the water and cleanser actually make it onto the cloth.
“After six and a half months on Space Station, that first shower [on Earth] felt really good,” Bursch says.
Astronauts sleep in sleeping bags with bungee cords and hooks, connected to the wall to keep them stationary.
On the Space Station, fresh food arrived after four months.
“When the cargo vehicle opened its hatch, the first thing I smelled was fresh apples and fresh oranges,” Bursch remembers. “They probably weren’t fresh—they were probably two weeks old—but I won’t forget that smell. There are certain tastes you miss.”
He missed pizza.
He says he also missed hugging his family, and feeling the sun on his skin, smelling the surf, hearing birds singing and airplanes flying overhead. Now that he’s back on Earth, he misses flying in space.
“I still have a dream where I dream about being able to push off one end of the Space Station and fly to the other end.”