Bad Day in Space
Patience and frustration on the ISS
In his candid new book, The Ordinary Spaceman (University of Nebraska Press, 2015), retired astronaut Clay Anderson dishes the kind of in-house politics that most NASA memoirs don’t, including—as in this excerpt—the sometimes strained relations that can develop between space crews and their taskmasters on the ground. Read an interview with Anderson in our August 2015 issue.
One of what I call my “dark episodes” in space happened between me and Mission Control, and was about technical issues. My recollection is that Fyodor [Yurchikhin], Oleg [Kotov], and I were preparing the space station for the arrival of the STS-118 crew. Prior to their arrival and docking, I was performing standard but critical ISS activities. These included disposing of trash and prepacking supplies and equipment we no longer needed so that the Endeavour could return them to Earth. I was also gathering tools and prepositioning items the Endeavour crew would need when they exited the airlock on Flight Day 4 for Rick Mastracchio and Dave Williams’s first spacewalk of the mission.
My goal as the only American station crewmember was to offload as much work for them as possible so that when they arrived on station, they could immediately focus on the robotics tasks and their excursions outside.
The trouble started on the morning we were to have a visit from a Russian Progress cargo ship. I was tasked to be in the airlock when the ship was scheduled for docking, gathering the spacewalking tools that Rick and Dave required. The airlock contains a simple yet clever piece of equipment mounted above the lead spacewalker’s space suit. It is a foldout bag made from special white Nomex fabric, and is used to stow extravehicular mobility unit equipment—spacewalk gloves, moleskin, eyeglasses, and the like—in its various pockets. The bag both protects the items and prevents them from floating away in the absence of gravity. It had been in its prescribed location since my arrival with STS-117 and was in perfect condition, having suffered little damage from its time in the shirt-sleeve environment inside the airlock.
One of my tasks for the day was to take that bag down and stow it in another. Then, when Endeavour’s crew delivered the new bag, I was to dig out the old bag and give it to them to stow back in the shuttle. As I worked I began to think there had to be a more efficient way to accomplish this. I called Mission Control via the space-to-ground loop 2 and cleverly suggested it would be more efficient to leave the current bag in place, use it for all four EVAs with STS-118, and then have Rick and Dave give me the new bag just prior to their departure. At that time I’d give them the old one for return.
My plan was not exactly embraced by the folks down on Earth. I got considerable pushback for that and several other time-saving suggestions. My frustration level was growing significantly.
The situation came to a head hours later when I received an email from the ground. Forwarded to me by our lead flight director, Bob Dempsey, the note related clearly that while I may have been frustrated with the ground, the ground was growing frustrated with me. The comments were, to say the least, acerbic.
“Why doesn’t he just be quiet and do what he’s told?” was the response to my numerous questions regarding task protocols. One comment was more to the point: “Why don’t they just bring him home with the STS -118 crew?” It was obvious I was not winning any popularity contests.
Bob Dempsey was trying to help me see things from the perspective on the ground, hoping to further my understanding of the negative impact I was having on them and to perhaps get me to back off a bit.
At first, I blew them off. I told myself I was strong enough to overcome the insensitivity of their remarks. Just let it go, I thought. They’re just venting.
But I couldn’t let it go. It festered inside me like a bad order of sushi.
“Who the hell do they think they are?” I thought. “I’m the guy living here. Who has a better understanding of the best way to do things than me?”
For two days I struggled. I now knew how some of the Skylab 3 astronauts felt. Having read Robert Zimmerman’s Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel in 2004, I knew of the Skylab crews’ difficulties with the ground control team. Like those astronauts, I felt a growing undercurrent of tension between the ground and me. I was depressed and upset with how I was being treated. I quit talking to the ground. If I was required to speak with them, it was short and to the point—very unlike me.
I did not share my situation with my crewmates. I’m sure they knew something was going on, but I couldn’t open up to them. In what may have been a totally incorrect assumption on my part, I felt that as Russians, they would interpret my emotional swings as a sign of weakness.
Fyodor, receiving backdoor information about the situation from flight controllers in Russia, offered some simple yet sound advice. “Clay, remember,” he would say with a mischievous grin, “smile and patience.”....
….Another time, on a normal day of station operations. I was headed for the Unity node to remove one of the module’s panels and perform a straightforward task behind its wall. Removing the panel had to wait while I moved numerous bags of equipment and supplies that were bungeed to its outer surface. (In a place desperate for storage space, Unity’s other role was as an “open-air” closet.)
I quickly moved the bags one by one away from the panel and secured them within an empty space, or “hole,” on the deck of the node where a rack had once been. Once the bags were secure, I began the tedious but simple process of removing each and every one of the forty-four captive fasteners that held the panel firmly in place.
With the work area completely exposed, it was easy to move in and execute the task. The node was full of environmental control equipment ranging from fans to valves, but the job was easy and quickly performed. I spent most of my time exposing the parts to be worked on and then covering them up once again.
Two days later I was knee-deep in spacesuits, cleaning and organizing the airlock for spacewalks to come. As I merrily worked my way through some of my favorite activities, Fyodor floated into Node 1, tools in hand.
“What’s up?” I queried my Russian commander.
“I have task,” he replied in understandable but grammatically incorrect English.
I thought nothing of it, expecting his usual perfect execution. But as he began to remove the very same stowage bags I had so carefully returned to their place two days earlier, my focus turned to his timeline. “Fyodor, what are you doing there?” I asked.
“Task behind panel here,” he informed me.
“Show me,” I ordered, flying to a station laptop displaying the daily timeline.
He showed me the task and its location. As always, he was correct. He needed to be behind the exact same panel I had opened just days ago, but the task he was to perform was totally different. I was making a premature assessment, but at that point my gut was beginning to boil as my frustration grew with the ground control team’s poor attention to detail. Fyodor successfully navigated the stowage, and the panel and hardware behind it, and all returned to normal.
As the end of the workweek approached, I was once again staged in the airlock. I had nearly completed preparing the space suits for the STS-120 crew’s upcoming walks when I glanced up to see Oleg performing the Russian version of a Superman impersonation as he flew through Node 1.
“What’s up with you today, Oleg?” I offered.
“I have a task here in Node 1,” he replied, with English as good as most Americans’.
“What is the task?” I inquired further.
“I will be working on the electrical patch panel, behind this wall here,” he replied as he pointed to the now infamous panel covered with stowage bags hiding the fingerprints left previously by Fyodor and me.
Now I was pissed! Exhibiting a level of anal-retentiveness not part of my character on Earth, I fumed at the inefficiency infecting our timeline. Why didn’t the ground have us do all three tasks the very first time we pulled down the stowage and removed the damned panel? What the hell were they thinking?
Frustration peaking, I grabbed the handheld microphone of the auxiliary terminal unit, hit the button for space-to-ground line 2, and keyed the microphone.
“Houston, Station on Space-to-Ground 2 for inefficiency,” I called.
“Station, this is Houston. Go ahead on two,” came the friendly callback of veteran astronaut, fighter pilot, retired air force colonel, and now Capcom Jim “Vegas” Kelly.
“Yeah, Vegas. Clay here. Just wanted to let you know that the three of us all did separate and distinct tasks this week in Node 1. Each task was behind the exact same panel. They all required removal and temporary stowage of the exact same set of bags; they all had us remove the same forty-four fasteners and then we had to put it all back in place. Three separate times. I just wanted to let the ground know that we did it, but we are not happy about it.”
A pause in the conversation, lasting nearly thirty seconds, was broken as Vegas’s voice came back on the line: “Clay, we copy and concur.”
The line went silent as I floated weightlessly above the airlock floor, trying to calm the frustration that had undoubtedly raised my blood pressure. I had launched another turd, this time a weightless one, but it would have the exact same impact on its target.
The total number of weightless turds I launched from ISS escapes me, but no doubt it was substantial. Safely back on the ground after a sometimes combative five months, I was sentenced to what I would call the astronaut version of “community service,” otherwise known as the astronaut penalty box.
The words used by the Astronaut Evaluation Board to describe my 152 days of service on board the ISS were, in part: “Although Clayton is thoughtful with his peers, he needs to improve his communication skills and attitude towards other teams with which he interfaces. . . . He tended to be a bit too casual with Mission Control, and sometimes too frank, and he could have been more patient during stressful times.” They went on to say that “Clay will need to rebuild his relationship with Mission Control if he is to fly again.” The recommendation for my flight status, as developed by my office peers, was listed as “conditionally eligible.”
It’s tough to admit, but on some of this they were right. While my intentions were always aimed at making things better for those who would follow me into space, I had not heeded the advice I’d been given and I let the frustration build to a point where it affected my work and my interactions with the ground.
Yet I wasn’t totally at fault. The situation on ISS where we were all assigned work behind the same panel in the same week was ridiculous. As a crew support astronaut for the Expedition 4 crew, I participated in the weekly planning meetings where these types of situations were discussed. On numerous occasions I was the “elephant in the room” who complained when the technical team failed even then to grasp the concept of “proper planning prevents poor performance.” To direct a crew to waste that amount of identical (and expensive) crew time on orbit was the highest form of government waste. It was inexcusable.
Even though my family and I had some legitimate grievances, I could have handled myself better. I did not follow the unspoken rule that no matter what, the ground is always right and they should be treated with kid gloves.
Excerpt from The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut by Clayton C. Anderson by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by Clayton C. Anderson. Available at nebraskapress.unl.edu.