I am calm the night before my first spacewalk in 2001, but I am also conscious I am about to do something I've been dreaming of most of my life. I feel ready - I've studied and trained for years. Still, I spend hours polishing the visor of my spacesuit so my breath won't fog it up, unpacking and checking each piece of gear, pre-assembling as much of it as I can, then carefully attaching it to the wall with Velcro. My crewmate
There are multiple steps to follow for an EVA; mess one up and you won't make it out of the spaceship. It will be many busy hours until we can float out of the airlock and
Four hours later, Scott and I are finally floating head to toe in our spacesuits, carefully and slowly depressurising the airlock and checking and rechecking the LED displays on our suits to make sure that they are functioning properly and can keep us alive in the vacuum of space. If there is a leak in the suit out there, our lungs will rupture, our eardrums burst, our saliva, sweat and tears boil, and we'll get the bends. The only good news is that within 10 to 15 seconds we'll lose consciousness. Lack of oxygen to the brain is what will finish us off.
When the airlock has finally depressurised, I grab the handle on the hatch and turn it - not easily, because nothing in a spacesuit is easy. The hatch is like a manhole, and it has to be removed and stowed in a bike rack-like contraption overhead. My exit will not be graceful. But my number one concern is to avoid floating off into space, so I'm tethered to Scott and I'm holding another tether to attach to the rail on the side of the shuttle. I lower the gold shield on my visor to protect my eyes from the sun and carefully, gingerly, wriggle my bulky suited self out of the airlock. I'm still inside the belly of the beast, in the payload bay, but my suit has become my own personal spaceship, keeping me alive.
Emerging from the bay, my existence narrows to a single point of focus: attaching my tether to the braided wire strung from one end of the vehicle to the other. I lock on to that and tell everyone I'm securely tethered. Now Scott can come and join me. Waiting for him, I check behind me, to be sure I haven't accidentally activated my backup tank of oxygen, and that's when I notice the universe. The scale is graphically shocking. The colours, too. The incongruity is stupefying: there I was, inside a small box, but now - how is this possible? What's coming out of my mouth is a single word: "Wow." Only elongated: "Wwwooooowww." My mind is racing, trying to understand an experience that is so unique. It's like being engrossed in cleaning a pane of glass, then you look over your shoulder and realise you're hanging off the
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