A Father Becomes a Two-Year-Old in Space
Little John "Hurricane" Linenger has had something in the past five months many kids can only dream of - a pen pal in space.Skip to next paragraph
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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.