BOSTON — Little John "Hurricane" Linenger has had something in the past five months many kids can only dream of - a pen pal in space.
The correspondence has been one way. After all, John is only a toddler. But that hasn't kept his Dad, Jerry, from sending him regular updates about life aboard the Russian space station Mir.
The NASA astronaut, who will be fetched from space during the current shuttle mission to Mir, hasn't lacked for subjects to take up with his son. He became the first US astronaut to do a space walk from Mir. His time aboard the aging station has also been marked by some adventures neither John nor his father would normally see around the house - including a fire in a lithium canister and failure of key life-support systems.
Dr. Linenger's updates - which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has posted, with his permission, on the Internet - present a father's-eye view of the dangers, frustrations, and wonders of life in space.
It also provides a window into an unusual bonding between a Navy captain, who normally likes to run triathlons and participate in open-ocean swimming races, and his young family.
"Spaceflight is a dangerous business," he wrote in his first letter from space in January. "I used to be pretty cavalier about it. But before this launch, I started questioning what I was about to do. You see, I have so, so much to lose."
Yet amid the dangers of living 213 miles above Earth, Linenger has become - in some ways - closer than ever to his diaper-wearing son. "I have to learn how to clean myself [in weightlessness], how to brush my teeth, how to eat without making a mess; and yes, even how to use a toilet. By the end of the day, my eyes can barely stay open."
The discoveries continue. "For example: you can brush your teeth pretty well, as long as you keep your mouth closed. Open your mouth and breathe out just a bit and you have foam floating away.... I think I look a lot like you do: constantly playing with my food. I can gulp peanuts like a fish would: They float, I open my mouth and pull 'em in! I know, I'm setting a bad example for you.... P.S. I almost forgot to tell you how I sleep. Strapped to a wall with bungee cords (because I like the sensation of feeling some pressure on my body, like lying on a bed). And the best part of all: standing on my head, upside down."
There is a practical reason for sleeping topsy-turvy, of course. It puts his head near an air vent, which gently blows and keeps his carbon-dioxide-laden breath from forming a CO2 "cloud" around his head while he sleeps.
Eating gruel - and liking it
Like his son below, Linenger has had to adjust to the peculiar tastes and habits of members of his new household - in this case, cosmonauts Sasha Kaleri and Valeri Korzun.
"I've been working hard on some very complex experiments, re-routing power cables, coming up with some new ways of organizing things on the station - in general doing a pretty darn good job around here," he writes with fatherly pride. "Not a word from my Russian crewmates. But today, I ate buckwheat gruel for breakfast, the Russian equivalent of Spam in a can for lunch, and tvordik ("sour cottage cheese"), beet soup, jellied fish, and currant juice for dinner: and were they ever impressed! I won them over."
Family communication, from space to Earth, can be complicated - but are cherished moments. By mid-February, little John is nicknamed "Hurricane" after the Mir crew watches him scurry around the TV broadcasting room during a video uplink. But by mid-March, frustration is beginning to emerge at the sometimes unintelligible connections.
"Sorta talked to Mommy on Sunday," he writes. "At least I heard her voice a few times. We move fast. The station rotates. The antenna is not always aligned. Only a few ground stations are open. The public Russian phone system is outdated. Our transmitter that aims at a satellite is broken. Combine all of that, and the chance of me having a normal conversation with Kathryn adds up to about zero. We've averaged less than 5 minutes of intelligible conversation a month...."
"Everyone asks about loneliness.... You prepare for it.... I work long, long hours every day. Gives you a great sense of accomplishment, of achievement.... You feel like you are doing something for your country; and I say that very sincerely.... You don't whine, you don't sit in a corner and tell yourself how miserable it is without pretzels, without trees."
Linenger's professionalism, or perhaps his fatherly protection, showed up in his descriptions of the dangers he faced aboard Mir. Though the fire, problems with the life-support systems, and failure of one of the Russian resupply missions loomed large to mission controllers, they rated only brief mention in his galactic notes. Indeed, the fire was serious enough to have prompted mission controllers in Moscow to call up the landing team responsible for overseeing the return of the Soyuz capsules, according to James Oberg, a Houston-based space engineer. Linenger's own account during a press conference in late March indicated that dense smoke obscured the passage to one of the two Soyuz return capsules. With six people on board Mir at the time, access to one capsule would allow only three people to escape.
Despite all his training, the adaptability of humans to space continues to impress Linenger. "You'd be impressed with the gracefulness of your Dad now," he writes in early March. "I can do triple spins with double turns - no problem.... I was brushing my teeth this morning and started laughing to myself (actually, out loud; but don't tell the psychologists who are keeping an eye on me to make sure I don't go crazy up here). I realized that I now feel absolutely normal up here...I do things like just letting my tube of toothpaste float in front of me, as if I had operated in this manner my whole life. I fly from experiment to experiment without thinking about it - as naturally as walking on Earth."
The prospect of having to do just that when the shuttle returns next week prompts a request: "When I return to the planet, the Earthlings, long ago adapted to standing upright and walking, will look at me and be astonished at my clumsiness. For a day or two, John, I'd like to ask you my first favor. Since this walking thing is something you just learned and is still fresh in your mind, maybe you can give Daddy some pointers. Then we can spend time together just walking, side by side, hand in hand. I'd like that."
Advice from NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger to his son, John
* Although most fathers want their sons to be like them, I'd rather you not try to follow too closely in your Dad's footsteps. Along the lines of the famous 'do as I say, not as I do,' phrase parents always use.
* Don't try to fly from point A to point B just because you saw Dad do it.
* Don't sleep on the wall.
* Don't eat your food upside down above the table.
* Don't spit your toothpaste into your towel.
* Don't change clothes once every four days.
* Don't eat your food directly from a can.
* Don't go five months without a bath.
* Mom is definitely a better role model.