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“All of the EVAs went exactly as planned, with one exception which was the cut in the glove,” Mastracchio says. Near the end of his third spacewalk, he noticed a small hole in one of the outer layers of his left glove. “I wasn’t worried, because there wasn’t a leak,” he says. “I was just concerned about finishing my job.” The risk of further degradation to the glove’s integrity led Mission Control to order him to return to the airlock, where he connected an umbilical from his suit to the space station’s life support system.

At one point during the second spacewalk, a faulty sensor indicated a buildup of carbon dioxide in Mastracchio’s space suit. But it proved to be a false alarm.

Both events highlighted the potential hazards of the self-contained space suit and its overall fragility in the space environment. “It’s amazing to be inside your own personal spacecraft,” Mastracchio says. “The thermal swings are incredible, 250 degrees above and below zero. It’s pretty amazing that you’re just hanging on to this billion-dollar spacecraft with a small handrail and a tether. You have to make sure that you don’t break anything.”

But no simulator on Earth could adequately prepare him for the view he would experience while walking in space. “We have a clear helmet that gives us a much bigger view,” he says. “You can see a wide field of view because the visor is so much bigger and you are closer to it. It’s an incredible view. You’re traveling at 18,000 miles per hour and you have beautiful views of the Earth as it is going by you. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

International Endeavour

STS-188 crew (l. to r.): Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, Charlie Hobaugh, Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Dave Williams and Alvin Drew

The voyage offered constant visual pleasures and surprises. “Sunrises and sunsets happen every 45 minutes — it’s very colorful in orbit,” says Mastracchio. “You can see a whole spectrum of colors. One of the things that was really amazing was watching this beautiful blue and white marble, a remarkable contrast between the blue earth and the darkness of space.”

At the end of one of the days in orbit, the crew turned the lights off on both the space station and the space shuttle. “We were inside the shuttle, looking at the space station truss,” Mastracchio says. “There was this incredible star field behind it.”

“We’re pretty busy on orbit,” he says. “But it’s always nice to take a few minutes every once in a while to look out the window and look for places that you know, like your hometown.”

Return to Space

Mastracchio logged more than 588 hours in space on his two missions, traveling more than 10 million miles‚Äîand he hopes to log even more. “I hope to get another space shuttle mission assignment, but there’s probably a better chance that I would fly as a long-duration crew member on the space station,” he says. “The space station flights are marathons where you have to learn how to live in space. I do look forward to it.”

Because the International Space Station crews include Russian cosmonauts, Mastracchio plans to resume his Russian language training at the Johnson Space Center this year. “I just started dusting off my Russian books,” he says. He also will live for six weeks with a Russian family near Moscow that doesn’t speak English to further improve his language skills.

On the ground Mastracchio also is part of a team that is helping to refine concepts for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle cockpit displays, instrumentation, and overall interior layout. Before training for STS-118, he was head of the overall cockpit team at the Johnson Space Center. “Helping to design new space vehicles is a pretty darn good opportunity,” he says.

Orion is the first spacecraft being developed as part of NASA’s Constellation Program with the goal of returning humans to the lunar surface by 2019. The Orion spacecraft, which will carry up to six astronauts, will make its first manned flight in Earth orbit during 2014. It will initially support astronaut crew transfers to and from the International Space Station, but will eventually send a crew of four astronauts back to the moon.

As one of the astronauts helping to design Orion, Mastracchio hopes that he will one day have the opportunity to fly it. “NASA is going to move on to the moon and Mars, with the Constellation Program,” he says. “We’re supposed to fly the Orion in about six years. I’m not sure if I’ll still be an active astronaut, but if everything goes well, I might still be able to fly in space.”

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