Robert Thirsk. Credit: NASA.

Return to Earth – Op-Ed by Canadian Astronaut Robert Thirsk

Six months aboard the International Space Station has flown by at orbital speed. If asked to do so, I could remain aboard the Station and continue to perform well. But I feel a fatigue setting in that even weekends and a good night’s sleep cannot relieve. It is now time to return home.

The second half of this expedition has been just as exciting as the first. Crew activities in September and October were focused on HTV, the magnificent new Japanese cargo vehicle. We first glimpsed HTV in the distance below us on the morning of September 17 as a gold and blue iridescent gem against the backdrop of the blue ocean. It was an inspiring sight. Once HTV arrived at the Station, my crewmates and I leaped into action. At the controls of Canadarm2, Nicole Stott captured the large, free-flying spacecraft as it hovered 10 meters away. I then maneuvered and berthed HTV to a docking port on the underside of the Station.

A few days later Nicole and I extracted a large pallet from within the cargo vehicle with our Canadian robot arm and then, in a choreographed maneuver, handed it off to Frank De Winne and the Japanese robot arm for installation on the Kibo laboratory.

Following the departure of HTV, we docked a new Russian module to the Station. And last week the shuttle Atlantis and her crew spent a productive week with us. This action-packed expedition is ending with a bang, not a whimper!

Throughout the last months, we have continued to be involved in maintenance and repair activities. There was always some component of the Station’s life support system that seemed to require our attention. Our most recent concern has been the Urine Processing Assembly. It has failed. This is the system that recycles our urine into pure drinking water. We have now determined that a spare part from the ground will be needed before our repair work can continue.

The most gratifying part of my Station experience has been the onboard research. One of the recent experiments I have operated is from Simon Fraser University. It is a colloidal engineering investigation called BCAT-5. Colloids are suspensions of tiny particles in a fluid, such as paint, ink, and even milk. The goal of BCAT-5 is to better understand the effect of phase separation on crystal growth. What we learn could improve the shelf-life of certain products and refine the manufacturing of plastics.

I also helped to initiate an interesting plant biology experiment from the University of New Brunswick. I bent the stems of young willow plants into loops as a means to better understand the fundamental processes by which plants produce cellulose and lignin, the two main structural materials found in wood.

During quieter moments, I have had opportunities for personal reflection. I am convinced that exploration, innovation and advanced education are important values for our nation to uphold. The acquisition of new skills is fundamental to the pursuit of personal dreams and corporate goals.

I have also reflected on the benefits of teamwork and international cooperation. The various mission control centres from around the world have worked well amongst themselves and with my crew. Even though separated by distance, we functioned as a single entity.

On December 1, I will return to Earth with two of my crewmates. After firing its main rocket, our Soyuz capsule will descend through the atmosphere in a fireball, followed by a parachute landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Later that day I will meet up with my wife and three children in Moscow. I dream of that moment. My next priority after that emotional reunion will be a long hot shower (although my children have suggested that I should have the shower before they greet me). I’m also looking forward to feeling the warm rays of sunshine on my skin and getting a decent haircut.

Re-acclimation to gravity will proceed slowly. I expect that my muscles, heart and sense of balance will recover to their pre-flight conditioning after several weeks. It will take many months for my skeleton to regain its lost bone density.

The end of my Station sojourn is bittersweet. I will miss the challenge of living in space. On every day of this expedition, some task has pushed my capabilities to a limit. Most of all, I will miss my wonderful crewmates. We had a special synergy.

I’m proud that I helped establish the International Space Station as a six-person laboratory. The Station is fully operational and has now entered its golden era. It hosts a wide variety of unique scientific investigations that cannot be performed on Earth.

With all of our expedition objectives accomplished, I am fulfilled. I thank the Canadian Space Agency for their trust in me and my family for their support.

And finally, I thank my fellow Canadians and international friends who have followed my journey. The relationships I’ve made through educational events, the kind words and pictures you shared with me, and the unremitting enthusiasm you’ve displayed bolstered my resolve. You inspired me to work at the performance level that this expedition requires, and for that I am profoundly grateful. I look forward to seeing you all on the ground.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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