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The highest-flying Yorkshireman is 'go for launch'

Jonathan Amos | 09:50 UK time, Friday, 5 February 2010

I've just landed in Florida ready for the weekend's shuttle launch. It's an opportune moment to be here.

President Obama and Nasa chief Charlie Bolden unveiled a new vision for US human spaceflight this week, and it's going to be fascinating to talk with the people most affected by the changes that are coming - not just those inside the space business but also individuals who work in the wider economy here along the Space Coast.

Nicholas PatrickIt's a chance also to catch one last launch before the orbiter fleet is retired.

There are now just five shuttle missions left before the museums beckon. And this launch is expected to be the very last time we witness this remarkable vehicle lift-off in darkness; the remaining launches will all be conducted in daylight hours.

Endeavour's mission will deliver two European-built modules to the International Space Station (ISS) that will essentially complete the Western part of the outpost.

Being a Brit, I also have the special interest of following the activities of UK-born astronaut Nicholas Patrick who takes a leading role in the 13-day venture.

Nicholas is now holed up with the rest of the Endeavour crew at the Kennedy Space Center, sleeping funny hours to time-shift his internal clock so that he'll be wide awake during the hours in which he'll be needed to make three spacewalks.

During those EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activity), he'll help plug in the new connecting Node 3, and install the "window on the world" - the Cupola. I'll dwell more on the Cupola in my next post; suffice to say this is probably the one module the astronauts really want to see on orbit.

Its primary function is to serve as a control room to direct robotic operations across the space station, but its seven windows will also afford the astronauts an amazing view of their home planet.

When I spoke to Nicholas a few days ago, he couldn't hide his enthusiasm for the Cupola.

"We can't wait because the space station has very few, small windows. They look mostly down, some look sideways; but from none of those can you really look along underneath the space station and actually see what's going on.
 
"With this set of windows, you'll be able to look all around. And, for example, if a visiting vehicle is arriving, you'll be able to see it; and if you have to grab the vehicle with a robot arm to lock it to the space station, you'll be able do that with a direct view out of the window, which is very important - like driving a car by looking through a windshield rather than using a television view. So, it'll be fun, but also very useful."

Nicholas flies as an American, of course. He wears the Stars and Stripes on his spacesuit, not the Union Flag. He may have emigrated after university and spent much of his life in the US, but when you hear him talk he still comes across very much as a Brit.

Cupola artist's impressionThe accent, for one thing, is unmistakable.

He tells a lovely story about his childhood in Yorkshire and walking the moors and seeing the statue erected to James Cook - and how that fired his imagination and desire to explore.

If you love symmetry, you'll recall that Cook made his historic voyages in HMB Endeavour - the very ship after which Nasa named its shuttle and which this 21st-Century Yorkshireman will now ride to orbit to undertake his own adventures.

"My life is very much in America now; and as a Nasa astronaut, of course it has to be. But I think back to England a lot. Almost all of my education was over there until graduate school. I remember looking down at England from orbit and being able to see the area of the coast of North Yorkshire where I was born; and London where I lived a lot. I look forward to coming back after the flight."

HMB EndeavourHis first, and only mission to date, was in 2006 when shuttle astronauts fitted a truss, or backbone segment, to the ISS.

Nicholas's duties this time, though, are much more centre-stage.

While a robot arm is used to unload modules from a visiting shuttle and position them on the station, it is the spacewalkers who must plug in all the "services" - the electrical, cooling and communications lines, and so on.

The EVAs are gruelling affairs that start long before the astronauts step out of the airlock. The night before the spacewalks, Nicholas and his co-walker Robert Behnken will camp out in the airlock. The practice is used to purge nitrogen from their bodies and prevent decompression sickness, also known as "the bends".

Once outside the platform in their spacesuits, it's a full-on day's work - seven or so hours with no sitdown, coffee break or afternoon nap.

Nicholas PatrickIn many ways, the job must be very similar to that of the deep divers who work on ocean drilling rigs.

Nicholas says his goal after this mission is to try to get selected for a long-duration mission on the space station. With the shuttle due to stop flying at the end of the year, the opportunities to go into orbit will be drastically reduced.

From 2011 onwards, for a few years at least, the only way into space for humans will be on board Russian Soyuz rockets, and they only seat three individuals compared with the shuttle's seven.

Savour the final five launches of the space shuttle. Nicholas Patrick intends to:

"You're flat on your back and you're strapped in really tightly so you can't move. You watch the clock tick down inexorably towards zero; and you realise that the closer it gets to zero, the less likely it is that something will go wrong and stop the launch - that you're really going to be flying in space in just a few minutes' time.
 
"That's an amazing thought. It's hard to comprehend how you could go from sitting on the ground to being in orbit at 17-and-a-half-thousand miles an hour in just a few minutes."

You can follow Nicholas through his Twitter profile. And if you go to the ISS tracking websites here and here, you can work out when the ISS, with Nicholas on board, is likely to come over your horizon. The best time to catch the fast moving "star" is just before dawn or just after sunset.

You can look up and think, "there's a Yorkshireman up there".

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