Record-Setting ISS Astronaut Glad to be Home
Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 14 commander and NASA space station science officer, sits inside the Soyuz 13 (TMA-9) spacecraft docked to the International Space Station during his 215-day mission in Earth orbit.
NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria is settling back into life on Earth after setting new records as commander of the International Space Station (ISS).
A veteran of four spaceflights, Lopez-Alegria commanded the Expedition 14 mission to the ISS, where he set new U.S. endurance and spacewalking records during the seven-month spaceflight.
?It?s almost surreal just looking back at it,? the former space station commander told SPACE.com Thursday. ?It was just such an adventure, and it seems distant already, unfortunately.?
Back from space
A U.S. Navy captain, Lopez-Alegria launched towards the ISS in September 2006 with Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin and American space tourist Anousheh Ansari. He returned with Tyurin and another space tourist -- American billionaire Charles Simonyi -- on April 21 after 215 days in space.
He and Tyurin have spent the last month readapting to life under the constant tug of Earth?s gravity, despite adhering to a rigorous daily exercise plan while aboard the space station. Astronauts routinely lose muscle mass and bone density during long-duration missions in space.
?I think it takes about a week or two to get back to 80 or 90 percent, and I think it?s going to take a lot longer to get that last 10 percent back,? Lopez-Alegria said. ?But so far, so good.?
Expedition 14 marked the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut, earning Lopez-Alegria one of several orbital titles during his seven-month flight. He also performed five spacewalks with various crewmates, bringing his career total up to 10 and total spacewalking time to more than 67 hours -- both NASA records.
?We really are just in the right place at the right time when they?re broken,? Lopez-Alegria, 48, said of the new records. While the 215-day U.S. endurance record may last -- NASA strives to limit ISS flights to six months -- the spacewalking records will likely be broken during future ISS construction or lunar excursions, the astronaut added.
Lopez-Alegria said he is unsure what?s next for his astronaut career, though he may continue to mentor new spaceflyers as he did for former crewmate Sunita Williams, who joined the station?s Expedition 14 crew as a rookie only to evolve into a seasoned veteran by the time she stayed on to join the Expedition 15 crew last month.
?I think I?ve achieved about all I can achieve flying in space,? he said, adding that he looks forward to the planned 2010 completion of the ISS and NASA?s plan to return astronauts to the Moon. ?I think it?s time?We need to keep pushing not just for the exploration itself, but for the development of the technology it will take to get there.?
Lopez-Alegria said that, in addition to the joy of reuniting with his family, lying down on a comfortable bed has been one of the highlights of returning Earth.
?I have had plenty of time doing that,? he said, adding that simple pleasures like having a variety of foods at mealtime also rank high. ??
At the same time, he will miss the splendor of floating weightless, performing experiments and looking down at his home planet from 220 miles (354 kilometers) up, Lopez-Alegria said.
One moment, in particular, will remained etched in the astronaut?s memory and occurred early on in the Expedition 14 mission, when Lopez-Alegria and his crewmates watched their predecessors -- Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov, flight engineer Jeff Williams and Ansari -- returned to Earth in September.
?We were able to watch their reentry and we could actually see the vehicle separate into three pieces,? Lopez-Alegria said, referring to the moment when the Soyuz spacecraft?s bell-shaped crew capsule discarded the no-longer needed propulsion and orbital modules. ?And that was very spectacular to see.?
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