Take a Spacewalk With Astronaut Tom Jones

Experience working on the International Space Station in this memoir excerpt from a space shuttle astronaut

Sky Walking.jpg
Astronaut Tom Jones waving during one of his three spacewalks on Space Shuttle mission STS-98 in February 2001 which activated the U.S. Destiny Laboratory, the historic scientific centerpiece of the International Space Station. NASA

Lingering anxiety had kept me awake late into the night after the first space walk. The four to five hours of sleep I did get made flight day 5 in the Lab a long one, but by the next morning I was more than ready for another trip outside. Although the first EVA (Extravehicular Activity) had proved an ordeal, Beamer and I had been up to every challenge, thanks to our training, our physical conditioning, and the superb support we had received from our EVA team. I never felt alone out there, not with Kerri and her team helping from the ground and Roman, Marsha, and Taco working with us inside the cabin.

Our major EVA 2 tasks centered on outfitting the Lab to support a growing Station. We would first help Marsha relocate the PMA-2 docking tunnel to the Lab’s forward hatch, where it would host future shuttle dockings. Then Beamer and I would install equipment needed for future EVA and robotics work on the Lab’s hull. Roman suited us up, loaded us with our tools, and buttoned up the middeck hatch. We were ready to go, and this time both my suit elbows were right-side out.

Everything seemed to click on this second space walk. From the time Beamer opened the hatch until the moment six hours and fifty minutes later when we came back inside, nearly everything went according to plan. Working closely with Marsha, I unlatched PMA-2 from its Z1 truss location, enabling her to move the tunnel directly to its berthing location at the forward end of the Lab. As she eased the PMA away, I spotted Beamer up forward on the Lab, removing a tablecloth-sized insulation blanket from Destiny’s forward hatch. The stiff foil and fabric blanket refused to fold into the neat bundle we had seen in the NBL, and as I watched, Beamer waded into the middle of it to lash it down with a couple of tethers. For a moment the disk-shaped cover surrounded Beamer’s waist, shimmering in the reflected silver-gray of the Lab’s debris shields. As my partner wrestled the cover into submission, I called, “Looks like you’re wearing a tutu, Beam.”

Marsha next brought the robot arm to the aft end of the Node, where we would join forces to prepare the arm for my ride to our tasks on the Lab. As I attached a foot restraint to the end of the arm, my view took in the delicate sweep of the US solar arrays, an orange-gold bridge painted across the empty black of the cosmos. Although I faced the sky as I worked, my brain was convinced that I was standing upright, putting the rest of the station on its side, the way the mock-ups lay in the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory). It proved very hard to defeat that underwater indoctrination.

Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir

A gripping first-hand account of life in space and the making of an astronaut. Veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones is uniquely qualified to give the details: he flew four shuttle missions and led three space walks to deliver the US Lab to the Station.

Whenever I asked Marsha to shift the robot arm slightly, I noticed another startling illusion. With each movement I requested, the arm appeared to remain stationary, while I drifted in the opposite direction. Once I recognized the optical illusion, I was able to enjoy it, smiling with delight at how free fall and that infinite backdrop above me could so completely fool my perceptions.

Climbing aboard the foot restraint, I was rewarded by Marsha with an awe-inspiring ride across the Space Station’s structure. In the cargo bay, hanging from my stirrups on the robot arm, I unbolted a grapple fixture from the sidewall and met Beamer at the Lab to complete its installation. Two months later, this power-and-data grapple fixture would serve as the foundation for the Canadarm II manipulator arm, a billion-dollar construction crane essential for Station assembly and expansion.

Marsha’s skill and the shuttle arm’s mobility made this part of the EVA a joy so different from some of the grueling physical work of the first space walk. All I had to do was ask to move three inches or three feet, and Marsha smoothly complied. But what seemed effortless to me was a demanding challenge for her. It wasn’t a matter of simply looking out the window and nudging a hand controller: “The EVA tasks on the arm were harder than the Lab berthing tasks,” she said later. “It took me a year and a half to learn how to do that....Since everything we did with one of you guys on the end of the arm was blind to me for the most part, and since it was going to be more useful to you to tell me ‘move me up, or to the left, or to the right,’ and since I don’t know my left from my right unless I mark my hand, I got Buzz Lightyear.”

Buzz was a six-inch-tall flexible action figure from the movie Toy Story. Marsha velcroed him on the remote manipulator control panel between her two hand controllers. “I painted his right hand red with nail polish,” she said, and then “if I brought up the [laptop] display showing the little guy on the end of it and if I put Buzz in the [same] position,” she would be able to visualize how to move the arm. “I always had Buzz with me ...I used him all the time.”

We had some surprises on EVA 2: a tool I expected to find near the FGB was misplaced two dozen feet away on the opposite side of the Node; our socket wrenches didn’t fit the bolts on a Lab vent (Beamer had to track down a substitute in the ISS toolbag); and a foot restraint I carefully returned to the airlock for modifications proved to have been one fixed two months earlier by the 4A crew (its serial number had been confused with another restraint attached to the Lab). These minor glitches illustrated the difficulty of keeping track of the thousands of components both inside and outside the expanding outpost—a challenge that would grow right along with the Station.

Despite these problems, our work went so well that we moved ahead of schedule and finished several jobs that had been scheduled for EVA 3. Beamer mated the eight power-and-data connections between the PMA-2 docking tunnel and the Lab, and we then met to unveil Destiny’s new window set into the bottom of the cylindrical hull. Over the window, Beamer bolted a skillet-shaped protective metal cover opened and closed by a hand crank inside the Lab. Peeling back an insulation blanket, we peered through the window and laughed at the scene inside. There was Sergei in his shirt sleeves, floating in Destiny’s brightly lit corridor, waving nonchalantly at two spacemen outside his home.

The unveiling of the new window was a high point of the EVA, but as we smiled in at Shep and company, I was completely unaware of a serious problem confronting my partner. Inside Beamer’s right boot, a fold in the neoprene bladder material had been forced into the top of his foot by the inflated suit. The innermost of the fourteen layers comprising the space suit’s tough fabric, the neoprene liner was stiff and unyielding, and the relentless pressure on his instep soon became excruciating. Beamer later told me:

It started as soon as we depressed the airlock. . . . That was kind of nasty. It was pretty excruciating pain for the whole spacewalk. . . . I think that was one of the reasons we got so far ahead, because I was just thinking “I’ve gotta get out of this suit, and soon.”

. . . at about the three hour mark, I was ready to cry “uncle!” it was so painful. But I thought,“I can’t do that,”and then when we got ahead and I got in the APFR [foot restraint], it kinda’ pulled back, and I said, “Oh, that feels much better.” That actually saved me, because that relieved the pressure on the top of that foot. . . .

. . . When I was out of the foot restraint, it was excruciating. I actually lost feeling in my toes for several weeks after that EVA.

Beamer told no one that he was wrestling with such pain. It was only when he got back inside, after nearly seven hours, that Roman and I learned of his situation. Next time out, Roman got his hands inside each boot, and was able to pull the offending bladder out of the way as Beamer donned them, preventing a recurrence. We were always learning.

On STS-98’s space walks, NASA managed to get three brains inside two space suits, and it was a tremendously effective combination. Inside Atlantis, Roman mounted the checklists on the wall near the floor on the aft flight deck and just floated inverted while he talked us through the EVA. He had trained under water on our tasks, and using the “helmet cams,” the miniature video cameras perched atop each of our suits, he tracked our progress and helped us avoid pitfalls.

Near the end of the space walk, as I hand-walked along the bottom of the Node carrying a portable foot restraint, I heard Marsha in my headphones: “Look down!” I pivoted on a handrail and peered toward Earth. Crowded in a window about ten feet away was my crew! I was looking straight down into the flight deck at Marsha, Taco, and Roman, all of them beaming like kids on Christmas morning. Friendship, I learned, can indeed be transmitted through a vacuum.

Our third EVA came on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2001. This was one last trip out into the bright sunlight, far above Earth, and in some ways it was the best of all. No bruised forearms, no crushed insteps, just challenging work and tremendous, inspiring beauty. With Beamer riding Marsha’s arm high over the Lab and up to the Z1 truss, it took only five-and-a-half hours to install a spare radio antenna and transceiver on the Station; route the cables connecting PMA-2 to Destiny; unlock the big starboard thermal radiator on P6 (and watch its accordion-like panels extend a full fifty feet); and climb high atop the truss ninety feet above the payload bay to inspect the latches on the solar array support struts.

Beamer and I had reached the very top of the International Space Station, floating between the wings of the extended solar arrays. The view through my faceplate was astounding. Nine stories beneath our boots, the gleaming white fuselage of the space shuttle Atlantis sailed tail-first with the Station toward the distant horizon. Stretching up from the orbiter to meet us was the P6 truss: a massive tower of aluminum girders, storage batteries, and delicate radiators. As we worked atop the Station, I stole brief glances at the black velvet sky above, and the cirrus clouds brushed across the cerulean ocean below. Save for the whisper of the suit fan and the occasional crackle of the radio, the only sound was the quiet rhythm of my own breathing.

Following our climb to the top of the Station, I moved on to the cables lacing the black exterior of the PMA-2 docking tunnel, making sure their connections to Destiny were secure. That job done, I knew my work outside the Station was just about over. Before beginning my traverse back toward the airlock, I looked up from the handrails to take in the view, and I realized what I had been missing. I called Roman for a favor: “Give me a minute?” I asked. Mario Runco, listening in from Houston, answered: “Go ahead, Tom. You’ve earned it.” I wanted to experience this moment not as a technician but as a human being. My space suit and I were weightless, my movements effortless. Silence prevailed.

Pivoting around my grip on Destiny’s forward handrail, I drank in the panorama unfolding around me. Directly in front of me, twenty feet away, the tail of Atlantis split the Earth’s horizon. Straight up, the glittering solar panels of the Space Station spread like golden wings across the black nothingness of space. To either side of the now-empty payload bay, the royal blue of the ocean and its swirling white clouds rolled past. Behind me, the bulk of the Station plowed forward like a vast, unwavering star cruiser, slicing through the heavens toward a horizon a thousand miles distant.

Never have I felt so insignificant, part of a scene so obviously set by God. Emotions welled up inside: gratitude for how well the mission had gone, humility at my tiny importance in this limitless cosmos, and wonder at His glories revealed. I remembered the voice of Buzz Aldrin, who, returning from the Moon on Apollo 11, radioed back the words of David: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”—Psalm 8:3–4.

My five minutes were up. Soon Beamer and I would be heading back inside Atlantis. We had another hour or so of test objectives to meet and equipment to stow in the payload bay, but we both felt an immense satisfaction at how well things had gone.

Fate threw us one last curveball outside. Public Affairs had informed us weeks earlier that if one counted up all the EVAs, beginning with Ed White’s first trip outside in June 1965, EVA 3 would be the 100th American space walk. Beamer and I planned to say a few words to honor those space-walking pioneers before us. I was thinking about choosing a good time for our little speech when I heard Mario’s voice over the radio: “Atlantis, Houston, Message 43 is onboard, please let us know when you’ve read it.” A few minutes later when Beamer was near the aft cockpit windows, I heard Roman call: “Beamer, could you come here for a second?” I glanced up and saw Beamer peering intently into the cabin. “I got it,” he said over the radio. Wonder what that’s about?

The answer came quickly. “Hey, guys, this is Roman. I’ve got the audio on ‘private,’ so we’re only going out to you two. Mario’s note says this isn’t really the hundredth EVA.” Somebody had done a recount and discovered that the real hundredth EVA had been two days ago on EVA 2. “Houston just wanted to get us the word so we didn’t have egg on our face if somebody checks the numbers. You can read the message up here in the window if you’d like.”

This was rich. Here were Beamer and I out in the void, “inches from instant death,” as Jay Apt used to say, and Public Affairs informs us they got the count wrong? Sure, it was nice that they caught their mistake, but why cut it so close? Oh, well, we all make mistakes. I could think of a few of my own without much trouble. Beamer and I agreed we could say that the 100th EVA occurred during our mission. The broadcast went fine, we thought, and we used it to sincerely thank our entire EVA team: flight controllers, trainers, NBL divers, suit technicians, the whole gang. They had made America’s three latest EVAs possible.

Closing the hatch for the last time was a bittersweet moment. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to EVA; I thought back to those five minutes of reflection up at the front of the Station and thanked God again for having been given the privilege of working outside. How could I close the door on that? Floating into the airlock, I considered these nineteen hours of space-walking an unparalleled gift, and my satisfaction with our success soon overwhelmed any feeling of sadness that our time outside was ending.

Flight day 9 was our final workday aboard the ISS, and our two crews scurried about, setting up equipment in the Lab, filming scenes for the IMAX film Space Station 3D in the Service Module, and transferring 3,000 pounds of equipment to the Station. Before the flight, we imagined we would have time to share dinner and perhaps a movie with Expedition One in their living quarters, but the demanding flight plan made that impossible. It was long after bedtime that night when the eight of us finally gathered around Shep’s kitchen table for a few minutes of tired but easy conversation. Yuri shared some Russian chocolates he had saved for the occasion, and Marsha presented the trio with one of her trademark chocolate cakes baked at the Cape and launched in our pantry. Surrounded by friends in the cozy warmth of Expedition One’s living room, I didn’t want to leave, but I was bushed. I cruised down the passageway to Atlantis to grab my sleeping bag.

I set up my bunk on Destiny’s starboard wall, clipping in parallel to the deck. Roman and Beamer soon settled in nearby. A few minutes later, Taco said good-night and switched off the Lab lights, leaving us in the dim glow from the FGB a couple of dozen feet aft. A few hours later I woke, chilled by the Lab’s efficient air conditioner, too much even for my sweater and sleeping bag. Still zipped in the bag, I unclipped the top, bent over to free the bottom fasteners, and drifted free in the aisle. It was the middle of the night on the ISS, and all was quiet. Wrapped in the dark green fleece bag, I tugged myself past my sleeping friends, through the Node’s nadir hatch and the PMA-3 tunnel, around a 90- degree turn in the airlock, and into the darkened shuttle middeck. It was warmer there, and I was soon asleep. Tomorrow we would cast off for home.

Sky Walking is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir © 2006, 2016 by Thomas D. Jones.