NASAastronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria is settling back into life on Earth aftersetting new records as commander of the International Space Station (ISS).
A veteranof four spaceflights, Lopez-Alegria commanded the Expedition14 mission to the ISS, where he set new U.S. endurance and spacewalking recordsduring the seven-month spaceflight.
?It?salmost surreal just looking back at it,? the former space station commandertold SPACE.com Thursday. ?It was just such an adventure, and it seemsdistant already, unfortunately.?
A U.S. Navycaptain, Lopez-Alegria launched towards the ISS in September 2006 withExpedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin and American space touristAnousheh Ansari. He returned with Tyurin and another space tourist -- Americanbillionaire Charles Simonyi -- on April 21 after 215 days in space.
He andTyurin have spent the last month readapting to life under the constant tug of Earth?sgravity, despite adhering to a rigorous daily exercise plan while aboard thespace station. Astronauts routinely lose muscle mass and bone density duringlong-duration missions in space.
?I think ittakes about a week or two to get back to 80 or 90 percent, and I think it?sgoing to take a lot longer to get that last 10 percent back,? Lopez-Alegriasaid. ?But so far, so good.?
Expedition14 marked the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut, earningLopez-Alegria one of several orbital titles during his seven-month flight. Healso performedfive spacewalks with various crewmates, bringing his career total up to 10and total spacewalking time to more than 67 hours -- both NASA records.
?We reallyare 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. endurancerecord may last -- NASA strives to limit ISS flights to six months -- thespacewalking records will likely be broken during future ISS construction orlunar excursions, the astronaut added.
Lopez-Alegriasaid he is unsure what?s next for his astronaut career, though he may continueto mentor new spaceflyers as he did for formercrewmate Sunita Williams, who joined the station?s Expedition 14 crew as arookie only to evolve into a seasoned veteran by the time she stayed on to jointhe Expedition 15 crew last month.
?I think I?veachieved about all I can achieve flying in space,? he said, adding that helooks forward to the planned 2010 completion of the ISS and NASA?s plan to return astronauts to theMoon. ?I think it?s time?We need to keep pushing not just for theexploration itself, but for the development of the technology it will take to getthere.?
Lopez-Alegriasaid that, in addition to the joy of reuniting with his family, lying down on acomfortable bed has been one of the highlights of returning Earth.
?I have hadplenty of time doing that,? he said, adding that simple pleasures like having avariety of foods at mealtime also rank high. ??
At the sametime, he will miss the splendor of floating weightless, performing experimentsand 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 earlyon in the Expedition 14 mission, when Lopez-Alegria and his crewmates watchedtheir predecessors -- Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov, flight engineerJeff Williams and Ansari -- returned to Earth in September.
?We wereable to watch their reentry and we could actually see the vehicle separate intothree pieces,? Lopez-Alegria said, referring to the moment when the Soyuzspacecraft?s bell-shaped crew capsule discarded the no-longer needed propulsionand orbital modules. ?And that was very spectacular to see.?
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