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What I Watched Last Night

Space. The final frontier. And what a boring-ass final frontier it can be.

I was surfing through the TV listings last night, and I noticed that my satellite provider added the NASA Channel sometime very recently. Since man cannot live on Law & Order reruns alone, and there's only so much badgering a human being can put up with from mortuary science project Janice Dickinson and her modeling agency, I thought I'd pop in and see what the rocket scientists were up to. The guide only said "commentary," and I couldn't imagine what anyone could spend an entire hour commenting about, especially since one of our shuttles didn't disintegrate or anything during the day.

As broke as NASA claims to be these days, it seems the agency has some extra money in its budget for things like this. I think it's under the line item description, "Come up with late-night TV programming to bore the crap out of everyone."

Much of the hour consisted of watching day-old video of the crew tinkering around in the International Space Station. The ISS, as you may know, is being cobbled together in space by various weightless representatives from American, Japanese, Russian, Canadian and European space agencies. Brazil's in there somewhere too, possibly as the main supplier of astronaut coffee and the really good Carnival hookers from Rio. Like anything else connected with government, construction of the thing is hopelessly behind schedule.

Right now, there's only room for three, so the crew currently consists of commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, flight engineer Sunita Williams, and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin. They've been up there since last September, so naturally they have that same sort of fish-belly tone to their skin that everyone in Chicago develops over the winter. And Williams' thick head of hair continually looks like its getting Flowbee'd, but otherwise they look pretty fit and healthy.

Anyway, the NASA Channel includes a commentator for this program because for some odd reason, the video has no audio feed. I suspect this is intentional, because the agency would probably have to spend even more money on publicists to explain why astronauts cuss and tell each other dirty jokes and Lord only knows what else during their workday. They would have to too, because a good deal of space work that doesn't involve walking in space is pretty unremarkable, and watching it is about as interesting as watching someone change your oil.

Last night, for example, we watched Williams and Lopez-Alegria install a section of an oxygen generation system, which provided a breathtaking and silent 15 minutes of Williams using a socket wrench to drive screws into the system's frame. Noticing that dead air isn't a plus in the broadcasting world, commentary guy explained that the system works by breaking down water into its two chemical components, hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen gets pumped into the station's atmosphere for breathing, and the hydrogen vented overboard. Commentary guy also prattled on about installation of something-or-another avionics air manifold mufflers sound-deadening foam monitoring concluded hydrogen leak panel and whole bunch other blahblahblah stuff I didn't pay any attention to because my eyes had glazed over by then.

"We'll have some video of that foam installation within the hour," said commentary guy, with some actual intonation in his voice indicating he was getting a tech woody or something. Gee, I'll make sure I'm on hand for that. Not.

The high point of the assembly broadcast was when Williams spent a minute or so searching around for something she seemed to have misplaced. I'm guessing it was her socket wrench because, as anyone who's ever worked with small hardware knows, the damn things are always getting up and walking away.

Commentary guy might consider watching some ESPN for some color tips because he has that same deadpan, semi-monotone that all NASA guys seem to have whenever you give them a microphone. Or maybe NASA ought to consider adding a sidekick because commentary guy tends to repeat himself an awful lot. If John Madden needs an off-season gig, he'd be perfect - "See, lookit these guys gettin' their uniforms dirty and really stickin' their noses in it, that's astronautin'!"

Meanwhile, back on Earth, we saw live shots of the NASA flight control centers in Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, and a quick one of the Russian flight control center in Korolev. Did you ever happen to tune in to C-SPAN by mistake when a bunch of folks are just sort of milling around aimlessly, waiting for roll call or something, while the single stationary camera just keeps rolling for no apparent reason? Welcome to the space program graveyard shift - although the Paul Bunyan-sized map of Earth all peeled apart like a big flat orange so everyone knows where the ISS is at the moment is pretty neat, as far as government-issue art goes.

Still, the broadcast wasn't without some actual educational moments. Here are some observations from Tuesday's show and space station trivia from commentary guy:

* The crew work in plain clothes and socks. White socks. Which don't get dirty. Sure, space can be a monotonous place to live and work, but you can't beat not having to dust or sweep the joint.

* The ISS was flying in a "tail-first configuration" at a speed of five miles per second. At that speed, the crew sees 16 sunrises and sunsets in a single day. This is a bad thing for procrastinator astronauts, since they'd just end up putting off things until today an awful lot.

* In a weightless environment, you don't need a chair to sit. Which makes it hard for any practical joker astronauts to pull the old Pull The Chair Out From Under Someone As They're Sitting Down gag.

In other words, astronautin' is hardly fun and games. And neither is watching it.

*

More What I Watched Last Night.



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Posted on March 7, 2007


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