I’m back on our beautiful Earth, thanks to all of your prayers and positive messages. I’m in Star City in quarantine for the next few days until I get back to DC to launch an exciting chapter in the X Prize Foundation concerning a prize for Genomics.
I was told to take it easy and limit my movements but I felt I had to at least tell you all about my ride down while the memory is still fresh in my mind…
On the 28th, we had a schedule shift onboard ISS. Our normal wakeup time was 4:00 am but on the 28th, it was moved to 9:00 am. Of course knowing that this would be my last day on ISS, I could not waste it sleeping, but fatigue took over and forced me to take a four-hour nap.
I woke up at 5:00 am and got ready to finish the last item on my list, the Educational Experiment video. The rest of the day I had dedicated to just watching the world go by and floating around enjoying weightlessness.
It was a difficult day for me and from the moment I opened my eyes I had butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t tell why, I knew that I was not scared of the landing… so what was it that was giving me this intense anxiety? It was not a pleasant feeling. It is the feeling you get when you are leaving on a long trip, leaving loved ones behind, not knowing when you will be back… It was the same feeling as when I flew out of Iran…
My heart was in my throat and I could not stand still. I eat when I’m nervous and before anyone woke up I was scavenging in the Snack containers looking for stuff to eat… It was only 5:30 and Misha graciously had offered to help me with videotaping the demonstrations at 7:00, so I had one and half hours to kill. I kept on eating… Cereal bar… Cookies… Dried fruit… coffee… almonds…. chocolate… Okay, I figured if I continue eating like this I will be in trouble sitting in the capsule for almost 8 hours.
Everyone was still sleeping so I went to the window and gazed at the Earth slowly gracefully rotating underneath….
The Earth felt alive… mesmerizing and enticing me with its beauty so I would not be sad to leave the space… I felt an unbelievable positive energy, may be it was the energy all of you were sending me…
Whatever it was, it calmed me down completely. I could feel warmth from the blue-white glow of the atmosphere and it was warming my heart. I remembered an ancient Iranian tradition.
On the last Wednesday of the year, Iranians celebrate the coming of the new year. One of the things they do on this day is jump over small contained fires they make using tumbleweeds. Yes you read it right “Jump over fire.” Okay, I know it is not the safest thing to do but it’s a tradition that’s kept alive from ancient times. I guess it is the Iranian equivalent of fireworks ;-).
So while performing this tradition they chant something that literally translates to “take my yellow color and give me your red color.” With this act they ask the fire to take all their weakness and all illnesses and to give them its warmth, health and strength. I felt like chanting the same thing too but I modified my chant to ask the Earth, while I was flying over it, to give me its warmth and positive energy, and banish all my negative feelings… I did not want to transfer anything negative down to Earth…
As I watched the beautiful sea of clouds rotate by, I felt 100 percent better. The butterflies were gone out the window :-)
One by one everyone started waking up and Misha, Jeff, and Thomas all participated in my Physics Experiment video, which made it very special…
We were supposed to go to our capsule and start undocking procedure at 18:30 GMT. I also had to follow certain procedures to hydrate myself so I would not pass out under the G force. By the time we finished the physics video, it was time for lunch. Everyone gathered for a last meal together…
This may have been the last mission for Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams, and even though they were ready to go home and reunite with their families, part of them knew that they were leaving something extraordinarily beautiful behind and it made them a little nostalgic.
As we were standing around the table I told them that one of my main goals is to make it possible for more people to fly to space and the most viable way today would be suborbital flight. I also did a little marketing and told them, “The best pilots for our future orbital flights would be former astronauts like you guys so when you think of retiring give me a call ;-). They smilled and said “sounds good!”
The day went by so fast and before I knew it, it was time for us to go to the Soyuz. I was returning in a different capsule. This one was the one Pavel, Jeff, and Marcos Pontes (Expedition 13/Soyuz TMA-8) had flown to the Space station. My seat liner and Space suit had already been moved to this new vehicle and Pavel had packed all my stuff the night before. The habitation Module was also packed with garbage and waste. During the last stages of flight, when we de-orbit and head back toward Earth, the Habitation module is jettisoned and burns up in the atmosphere with all the stuff in it.
After a quick goodbye on camera and a teary eyed goodbye off camera, we all got into the capsule and Misha, Mike, and Thomas closed the station hatch behind us. We also closed the Soyuz hatch on our end and as soon as it was closed we noticed a picture the Expedition 14 crew had taped to the inside of the hatch for us. It was a picture of the three of them waving goodbye looking dawn into the hatch. It made all of us laugh and started our descent in a good mood.
The next step was a lengthy hatch leak check to make sure there was no pressure leak on the hatches between the capsule and the station. Meanwhile we started putting on our space suits and prepared to enter the Descent Module. After the leak check was successful it was time to close the hatch between the descent module and the habitation module and perform another leak check. This is done to make sure that after the Habitation module is jettisoned, we could land safely at the appropriate time.
Some time ago, one crew had to stay an extra day in orbit in the Descent module after the Habitation module was jettisoned. So it is important to make sure that it is a safe environment to stay in, if a malfunction arises.
The last few days of the flight, every crew member shared stories and experiences regarding landing. Their descriptions and advice about landing was consistent with what I had been told on Earth by other astronauts and cosmonauts like Peggy and Yuri. “It is going to be a rough landing… there will be a lot of motion during parachute opening and a very big impact upon touchdown…” They also advised me on how to best prepare myself for the impact in each situation… I had reviewed all the procedures and I was ready.
After making sure all systems were ready, doing a space suit pressure leak check, and completing the Descent module leak check, we got the go-ahead from mission control and we started to undock…
The readiness checks and leak checks took a long time and I somehow felt so exhausted and kept falling asleep. Seeing my eyes closed worried Pavel and he kept checking on me from time to time to make sure I was feeling okay. I told him, “I don’t know why I cannot keep my eyes open. Sorry!”
Jeff had the best explanation. “You are coming off 10 days of adrenaline rush… Your body is telling you it needs rest.” He was probably right. I had been on a high from the entire experience and I was on my way down. I felt the slight jolt from undocking and I knew I was going home, no way to go back now… :-)☹
The first stage of descent was slowly backing out from the station, which gave us a beautiful view of our home in the Cosmos. Then we started getting to the appropriate orbit for descent.
As we started getting close to the de-orbit phase, Jeff told me to get ready for our roller coaster ride. He reminded me to tighten my straps when the G forces start building up and to make sure I’m glued to my seat with all my abdominal and thigh muscles tightened up to slow the blood from draining down from my head. He reassured me that he would announce every stage to prepare me for what was coming up… and he did. Pavel would announce each stage in Russian and Jeff would re-announce it in English and gave me a quick reminder of what to do.
The first significant thing that happens during de-orbit is the Habitation module jettison. Jeff reminded me to make sure I keep an eye out the window to see the orange glow as we entered the atmosphere and before everything goes dark again. The Habitation module jettison was pretty smooth and uneventful.
The next vivid memory I have is when we entered the atmosphere. There was an orange glow and as we continued entering the atmosphere the heat shields started to burn up and we could see these sparks outside the window going by. I felt like I was riding a shooting star. Later on I heard the same thing from people who were watching us from Earth. They described us entering the atmosphere as a shooting star. Then the G’s started building up. Jeff reminded me to tighten my belts, which I did, and he continued announcing the G loads building… “1.5 G.. Anousheh are you tightened up?… 2 G’s…. I think we are going to go to 4 G’s…”
I was feeling the G’s now. It felt similar to what I felt in the centrifuge but 2 G’s in centrifuge felt much less than 2 G’s descending… I was strapped down so tight that I felt my shoulder bones could break.
Every time Pavel would announce the G loads, Jeff would announce it as well “2.2 G’s… 2.5…. 2.7… 2.8… 3 G’s…” Wow! my face was being stretched in all directions. I must have looked really funny… I tightened my stomach muscles and tensed up my whole body, as though I was in the Centrifuge simulations. I had done 8 G simulations without a problem, but 3 G’s was feeling like 8 G’s already and I was wondering how my body would react to another increase.
I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest… The pressure was building and I asked God to give me strength so I would not pass out. “3.2… 3.5… 3.7… 3.8… 4… Okay, now we are going down… 3.5… 3.2… 3… 2.8…” Oh what a relief!… I started thanking God for helping me get through this… 2… 1.5… We are back to normal… Well at least for a while…
We have a few minutes of peaceful descent… Jeff and Pavel checked to make sure I was feeling okay. I told them “Vsiyo Kharashow,” meaning everything is okay. Jeff gave me a five-minute warning for the parachute opening. Then as we got closer he said, “One minute here we go… get ready.”
This is probably the most violent part of the descent, next to the ground touchdown. The parachute has three stages. The first and last parachutes have the biggest impact.
The first one deployed and yanked us up and put us in a crazy spin all over the place. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t get sick watching the panel in front of me move around… As the swinging motion started to stabilize the big parachute deployed and started swinging us once more, and then it stabilized. It felt like being on one of those spinning saucers or spinning cabin rides in the amusement parks. You are basically thrown all over the place…
Our seat was then raised to prepare for the final stage which was landing. This reduced the small space we had in front of us to an even a smaller one. Jeff and Pavel announced our descent from 3,000 m down to 200 m and then the BIG impact.
We hit the ground so hard I though we were buried in the dirt but then we had a little bounce and rolled to one side. When we hit the ground, I felt like a million needles were pushed in my back and felt an intense pain. The feeling stayed for little while until we rolled and my back separated from the seat, then the pain started going down.
Pavel checked to make sure we were all okay… I said everything is great… and thanked him for a great landing. Jeff did the same thing and as we were hanging upside down in our seats we stretched our arms out and put our hands together to celebrate a safe landing.
The cabin started smelling like burned wire from the burning in the atmosphere. The capsule was still very hot. The search and rescue team was on its way.
Our capsule landed in a desert area in Kazakhstan called Arkalic. I stretched my head up to take a peek out the window…
A gorgeous morning was about to begin and I could see the sun slowly coming up over the horizon. Pavel announced that the temperature outside is -5 degrees C. I started joking with them ” -5! — I want to go back ☺”
They started laughing.. Pavel said, “-5 degrees is nice!” and Jeff said, “It will probably feel good.”
After a few minutes I heard a knock on my window. The search and rescue team had arrived and they started opening the hatch. Jeff reminded me to take it easy and not do any sudden movement and to keep my head straight to minimize any motion sickness.
The hatch finally opened and the smell of fresh crisp morning air overtook the smell of burned wires. When I started breathing and smelling the Earth, I felt good.
It was good to be home and in a few hours I would be able to see Hamid and talk to my family. I was not sad anymore. My heart was filled with joy! My journey had ended but my quest to open up the gates to the universe for everyone else has just begun.
I have to take a break now so the rest will be told in my next blog…
It’s good to be home and I will start reading your comments today…