I am floating down the length of the International Space Station somewhere 250 miles [402 kilometers] above the North Atlantic, going about 17,000 miles [27,353 kilometers] per hour. If I tilt my head down as far as my space suit will allow, I can see the edge of my helmet and even my boots. As I jet around the exterior of the station, the misty Earth below seems like a blue and living cell. Now Africa heaves into view toward the east. The Niger, like a great snake, undulates down its belly.
This is my first EVA, or Extra-Vehicular Activity. The exterior of the space station, almost blinding in the airless sunlight, has golden handholds bolted all over it, each a glittering treasure of safety, labeled with numbers and letters to tell me where I am in the confusion of this mammoth structure. I can read the labels vividly in the blazing sun as I drift down toward the open cargo bay of the space shuttle. It's still docked there from our arrival on station, and the 50-foot [15-meter] Canadarm (used for grappling satellites and pieces of the station) is folded up now, at rest.
Soon the space shuttle will close its doors, back away from us, and blast home in a fiery de-orbit. We'll watch it burn in the night sky as it disappears into the blue. Night and day alternate every 45 minutes herea sunrise and sunset 16 times during every normal Earth day.
Off to my right, I see another astronaut in his brilliant white space suit, working on something, perhaps a communications antenna. As he works, twisting a torque tool, he suddenly loses his grip, his tether fails him, and he is kicked off the station. I watch in horror as he goes tumbling head over heels toward a half moon, which hangs in the black sky like a child's paper boat.
He's moving away fast. I see him grab for the controller of his SAFER unit, the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue, which we all wear when working outside the station. It's a small nitrogen jet tank with a minute of fuel. By carefully controlling the jet, he can maneuver back to the station. That's the theory. Now he punches a button with his big white-gloved finger, and the device automatically fires, calculating the force required to stop his rotation.
Gradually, his tumble stops, but he's still drifting away. I breathe a sigh of relief, which I can hear in the headphones of my helmet. "Is he all right?" I ask.
Get the full story in the Fall 1999 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE.
Where should NASA boldly go next?