Confessions of an astronaut
Nothing like being on Earth, says ex-astronaut Chiao
To so many, the smell of muddy grass is of no significance, but former American astronaut Leroy Chiao says it is something to be cherished.
"It is a wonderful smell because it triggers a flood of memories of being on Earth. I knew I was home," Dr Chiao told The New Paper in an e-mail interview in April.
Dr Chiao, 57, commanded a space station mission for 6½ months in 2004 - months longer than the typical shuttle missions that he was on.
Readjusting back to conditions on Earth can take a few weeks as there are a lot of physiological changes, he said.
"When you come back to Earth, you are dizzy and feel a little weak... (But) we recovered quickly, after about a week. This was because we were serious about the exercise programme, before, during and after flight."
A veteran of three shuttle missions, Dr Chiao has clocked 5,500 hours in space, including six space walks totalling 36 hours.
As the commander of Expedition 10 on the International Space Station in 2004, he had overall responsibility for the success of the mission.
"Most of my work was done before launch. I had to make sure that we were satisfied with the training that we received, and thought through our entire mission and anticipated as much as possible, all the things that could go wrong."
Working hours are long and irregular due to having to complete training, such as late-night simulator sessions and clocking flying hours during the weekends.
The father of two first dreamed of being in space when the first men walked on the Moon - Americans Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong - during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
One misconception people have of his job is how they are treated like rock stars and make a lot of money, said Dr Chiao, who speaks fluent English, Chinese and Russian.
"Neither are true. It is a lot of hard work and we are working for the government. So we are anything but rich," he said.
Like all government employees, he has to take economy class for flights. He added that he had to take a 5 per cent pay cut from his previous job as an engineer to join Nasa in 1991.
"This seems to be what they do when you come in as an astronaut - they give you a bit less than what you were making outside. One exception being medical doctors, who have to take quite a drastic cut," he said.
He ended up working there for 15 years and currently sits on its advisory council.
A perk of the job was getting a bird's eye view of Earth during his third mission in 2000.
"During that time, I was face down to the Earth and could not see either the International Space Station or the shuttle out of my peripheral vision.
"I watched the continents and clouds roll by and felt like a satellite flying over the Earth," he said.
Dr Chiao will be conducting a camp for children on board the cruise ship Genting Dream, whose home port is in Singapore, from Friday to June 22.
Secrets of the trade
- Teamwork. It is important to be flexible and to work well with others.
- Technical competence, and picking up skills if need be.
- Stay cool under pressure. You must be able to prioritise events, especially in emergencies.