One Year Later: Eytan Stibbe's tells his space flight story
Isolation in Orlando. We’re isolating in a comfortable house with a swimming pool, and kitchen staff catering every meal. We wake up early, at 3am, as we get used to living according to London time, which will dictate the order of our days on the Space Station. We have a light breakfast with no fiber, quite the opposite from what I’m used to eating: salads and fruit, and once we finish eating, we have an enema. This is how it is. In spite of the fact that the Dragon is the most sophisticated spaceship there is, it is not especially comfortable, and the privacy is most certainly limited.
In an orange bag, we pack all the important things we’ll need when we land back on Earth after the mission is over: clothes, phones, chargers. We take the bag to the changing rooms and leave it there. We previously prepared two carefully measured and weighed bags that are already waiting for us at the Space Station: the first, memories and keepsakes from home, and the second, the “closet”. Inside are two pairs of pants, four shirts, socks, underwear, and toiletries – the bare minimum, that’s it. We have our final shower, put on our overalls, and say goodbye to the team that has kept us company over the last few days. They’ll stay in isolation in case the launch is canceled at the last minute, and we also need to return to isolation.
We board the helicopter that takes us to Cape Canaveral. Dawn breaks, and the sun’s rays creep into the little helicopter. The spacesuits are already waiting at the Cape. Getting into them is no easy feat, and the local crew assists us. We check that the suits are intact, completely sealed and connected to a tube that allows for comms and oxygen to get inside the suit. It’s called the umbilical cord, just like with a baby. I think it’s an appropriate name. From this moment on, every detail is meaningful to our lives.
We go out to the Teslas and take photos. The suit fits better than the practice suit. There is a special cooling system in the Tesla, that keeps a steady, comfortable temperature. Our song of choice, Eminem’s Lose Yourself is playing in the background:
“…if you had one shot, or one opportunity,
to seize everything you ever wanted…”
We drive up the ramp, the car doors open upwards, and we pull ourselves out. We ask for the song to keep playing at full volume. This is an opportunity to take in Falcon-9, the huge rocket that will blast us out of this world. The suit doesn’t really accommodate head movement. Among the crew, we’re starting to feel like this is actually happening.
We enter the elevator of launch tower A39. Mark, Mike, Larry, and myself. Entering the elevator is the start of a long tradition. Just like all the astronauts from the Apollo program and other space shuttles, including Ilan and the Columbia crew. It’s impossible not to get excited. On the “farewell floor” there is an old-fashioned telephone with buttons that looks as though it was brought here from some kind of souvenir exhibition. In line with tradition, we call our families. I go last so that I have enough time to take in the view. I look at the Artemis missile in all its glory. Maybe I will even make it to the moon one day. Who knows? Meanwhile, my turn arrives, and I dial the Israeli number. There’s no answer. I dial the American number. Ora answers, and the whole gang are there. They’ve been in the safehouse for a few hours now, away from the public eye, and Ora says “I hope that we won’t have to come back here again…”
Each one of us signs the wall, upon which lies mankind’s legendary efforts to reach space. Few of the signatures of our predecessors were launched in a SpaceX spacecraft. We part from the team and take patches with their names on, into space, and upon our return, they will wear these patches that came back from outer space. It’s a tradition.
We enter the spacecraft, I am last. It’s a clumsy entranceway, but we practiced it so many times, that everything goes okay. Each man sits in his chair, buckles up and harnesses in. Someone comes to check that everything is connected, the communications work and that the pressure is alright. All the engineers checking the equipment and their assistants are wrapped up like ninjas. (Covid, remember?).
They leave and close the hatch behind them; so-called as it’s smaller than a regular door. They check and discover that there’s no seal. They open it again, and I begin to think that it could be canceled and we will have to return to isolation. But this time, when they close it again, everything is intact.
Two hours to launch. Once everything is signed and sealed, we prepare the spaceship for launch. Outside, everyone is vacating the premises and distancing themselves by at least 3-4 km. Inside, we are going through the work protocol, telling jokes, and checking all the screens. Everything is great. Yalla, let’s go. At least they managed to close the door. Time passes. When the robotic arm moves away, the sun suddenly comes in through the windows.
45 minutes to launch. We start fuelling. We hear valves opening and closing. The visible gasses outside are for cooling during the fueling process. It’s a very sensitive time, and we need to make sure the fuel doesn’t heat up. Of course, we are aware of the danger, but not afraid. We have learned everything, and we trust the process. Moreover, our Dragon knows how to do its job. Fact. We will be its third launch crew.
10 minutes to launch. Arthur and Anna from mission control ask the crew to say a few words. Mike approves and directs them to me. I quote a few lines from the poem Ithaka, that feels as though Constantine Cavafy wrote it just for us in 1911,
…Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her, you would not have set out.
And say, “good luck Rakia, good luck AX1”. The commander enters the broadcast and thanks everyone who helped get us ready for our journey along the way.
From micro to macro, we wait for the anticipated message: “Go for launch”, that gives us permission to launch.
The last 45 seconds to launch. It feels like an eternity.
10 seconds to launch. Anna from mission control starts counting. We all join in and scream together with her 10, 9, … 3, 2, 1.
Lift Off. As soon as the acceleration starts, the fun begins. A very relaxed, soft feeling. This is 1.5 G, maybe 2. Through the window, I see the view. I look at my crew members, it’s enjoyable, it’s exciting. And no, there is not an ounce of fear. Acceleration increases.
The spacecraft is completely autonomous, the commander who has already flown a spacecraft or two is sitting in a chair, just like us. Throughout the whole launch, we’re watching a map of the world. If something were to happen and we eject now, where would we land?
The missile slightly reduces the thrust. We break the sound barrier. The engines are once again in full power.
At 4G it feels like we weigh four times heavier. We can’t lift our hands, and there’s pressure on our body. During these moments, we check on the height and speed, and wait to leave the atmosphere.
At 80 km (6 Mach) the launcher disconnects. The G stops. With pure precision, the launch missile lands on a rig at sea. The engine for the second stage automatically ignites, and we continue to accelerate from 7,000 kph (4,350 mph) to 28,000 kph (17,400 mph) for a further 12 minutes. Until now, only 2 minutes have passed. It’s nothing.
At 100 km, 3 minutes after launch, Mike says, “Welcome to space! You are astronauts!”
When we enter the Earth’s orbit, we separate from the second engine, and part from the launch control team that accompanied us on the comms until this moment.
We release the harnesses, get out of the spacesuits, and pack them into a bag that goes under the seat. We remove the diapers, that, to our delight, did not need to be used, and stay in our Gatex. I float over to the window. Excitement. First photos of planet Earth. Only 15 minutes have passed since the launch, and we are already floating. In accordance with what was recommended, I try not to move my head too quickly, as it causes nausea. Thankfully, I feel good.
Evening arrives, and we start getting ready to eat. The food is pre-prepared in bags: nuts, tuna, cakes, chicken. Now the trading begins: this one doesn’t like tuna, that one doesn’t like meat, so we switch. It reminds me of the army. We learn how to propel peanuts directly from our hand into our mouth in a straight line. I report everything we ate and how much we drank to the control room, as well as how many times we used the restroom.
Before going to sleep, we harness ourselves again in our chairs, so that we’ll be in the same place when we wake up. During the flight, I happened to nap whilst floating, and Mark took a picture of me, sleeping in the air. In any case, the way the chair turns into a bed is quite comfortable. Each person has a toothbrush, eye mask, and a light switch. Just like my friends, I’m dead tired, and fall into a deep sleep for 6 or 7 hours.
Wake-up. Lights. A song written by my younger son, Yoav, to the tune of Noa Kirel’s “Trilili Tralala” blasts at us on full volume “launching into space …sp spa space”.
I’m floating with joy. This is what it feels like to make a dream come true.
So that’s the story, and it will be told many times over.
Watch this space.