Col. Susan Helms, USAF

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By Marcia Gitelman  

Susan Helms was a crewmember on Discovery launched on March 8, 2001 from the Kennedy Space Center. She was headed for Space Station Alpha for what was to become a five-and-a-half month stay. Susan accomplished another “first” in women’s aerospace history as the first woman who was a long- term inhabitant on the International Space Station. Her official title for this mission was Flight Engineer. American Jim Voss and Russian Commander Yury Usachev comprised the remainder of Expedition Two.  

They would be responsible for the continuing construction of the station as well as overseeing the first phase of scientific experiments. Specifically Susan would be the computer expert and be in charge of the equipment on the U.S. module Destiny.

Susan’s interest in flight came early in her life. She was the child of a career Air Force officer. By the time she was in junior high the idea of the military appealed to her as well. She could not, however, become a pilot as her dad was because of bad eyesight. Susan graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1980 with a Bachelors Degree in Aeronautical Engineering. On active duty she opted to become an F-16 weapons expert. That gave her the opportunity to fly in jets.

A taste of the thrills associated with high-speed flight planted the seed in her mind that a career as an astronaut would suit her. While attending Stanford University to obtain a Masters Degree she had the opportunity to hear Sally Ride speak. That experience cemented her goals. After completing her degree Susan returned to the Air Force as a flight test engineer and instructor of cadets at the Air Force Academy. She was accepted as an astronaut candidate in 1990.

Because of the unique nature of this mission, which required a long stay in orbit, a space walk, speaking Russian as a means of communication, and using Russian equipment, Susan’s preparation was extremely multi-disciplinary. First of all, she had to become fluent in Russian. To her this was extraordinary. When she joined the military the “Cold War” was in full swing. Now she was to live with and work with the Russians. An important part of her training was a Russian winter survival camp. The purpose of this was to simulate having to evacuate the ISS in the Soyuz emergency vehicle and having a crash landing in a remote area of Siberia.

To prepare for space walks she spent several weeks in NASA’s neutral buoyancy lab in Houston. There, in a six-million-gallon pool with life size models of the ISS and a shelm2.gifshuttle installed underwater, in a special suit, she learned to work the robotic arm and move along the exterior of the station or the shuttle. Water is best for simulating weightlessness.

Activities during Expedition Two included checking out the large Canadian-built robot arm essential for further addition of modules to the space station. It was delivered in April on the next shuttle flight. This proved to be more challenging than planned, and solving the electronics problems took weeks. Susan needed to use the arm to lift an airlock module out of the payload bay on a subsequent mission. The airlock was necessary so that the entire space station did not have to decompress when a space walk was planned. In the middle of these activities, the crew had to host Dennis Tito, the first American space tourist who arrived in a Russian vehicle.

Other experiments included the first space station plant growth experiment sponsored by a NASA Commercial Space Center. The study’s goals were to produce the first plants in space that produce seeds. The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison partnered with Space Explorers Inc. to create an orbital laboratory program that allows students to conduct experiments on the ground and compare them with results from the experiment on the ISS. A continuing experiment from Expedition One was an experiment sponsored by MIT which was key to learning about how things move and vibrate in space. Susan also took time out from her busy schedule to participate in an amateur radio field day. Her call sign is KC7NHZ. She gave many amateur enthusiasts a contact from space.

As Susan is single and does not have any children, some of the preparations for her long stay were easier than if she had a family. She closed her apartment and sent her possessions into storage. She cancelled her credit cards and placed all-important papers in a safe deposit box. She found a new home for her pet cat, Mango. Susan plays the keyboard for an all-astronaut rock band and had to sacrifice playing her music while she was in space. For entertainment she was allowed to pack ten paperbacks of her choice. The crew was also able to watch movies in their free time and read classics from an onboard library. And, wouldn’t you know it, she had to arrange to pay her taxes to the IRS before leaving.

While living on the space station Susan had to take particular care of herself. Calcium supplements and exercises were part of her daily regimen to help compensate for the loss of bone density and muscle atrophy that all astronauts experience. One of the positives that occur while living in space is that wrinkles go away. “The lack of gravity allows fluids to fill the fine lines of the face,” explains Susan. Also, you get taller “because gravity is not present to compress the cartilage between the vertebrae in the back.” Because clothing is weightless as well, the astronauts use Velcro to keep their shirts tucked in.

As the time arrived for the crew to begin preparing to return to earth in August, Susan was in no hurry to leave her orbital home. “Living in space has been such an amazing experience that I’m not quite sure I’m ready for this to end,” she was quoted as saying. “There have been many shuttle flights where the entire crew could come back and say they didn’t have time to look out the window because there was so much work they were trying to accomplish. However with a long-duration flight, we do have the ability to slow the pace down a little bit, because this is more like living a life than coming up here on a business trip.”

shelm3.gifAstronauts share a small crew cabin the size of a panel van on a shuttle flight. The ISS now consists of four bus-sized wings that stretch 171 feet. “Up here on the space station, we usually have three people, and we have four separate modules, and the ability to play around in this kind of space is just wonderful.” Sightseeing opportunities abound. On the ISS the astronauts have 13 portholes in their crew quarters and a huge round picture window in the U.S. module Destiny.

The crew returned to earth on August 22, 2001 at 1:23 p.m. She walked off the shuttle Discovery with a hand from a flight surgeon. Susan came through her readjustment to gravity in fine shape. At first she “felt like her body weighed 500 pounds.” Her first food was a milkshake, and then she had a salad with fresh greens that she craved. After their return to Houston the astronauts started a physical rehabilitation program consisting of a calcium enriched diet and physical workouts that gradually increased in intensity. They had daily massages to help ease the soreness out of underused muscles. Their program included swimming, calisthenics, jogging and weight lifting.

About the Author

Chicago, Illinois

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