Monday, February 22, 2010

Astronauts Hold Winter Olympics In Space

Tariq Malik, Managing Editor – Fri Feb 19, 2:00 pm ET

They don't have snow or ice, but an international team of astronauts held their own weightless Winter Olympics this week. Their venue: a $100 billion space station.

The 11 astronauts aboard the linked shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station (ISS) tried their hand at several space Winter Olympics events this week during breaks from adding a new room and observation deck to the outpost.

Their events? Space skiing, the zero-G luge and a graceful weightless figure skating. The crew beamed some space sports video of their antics to Mission Control.

Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, a space station resident, even donned a pair of short space skis for his slalom and jump events.

"I did send out my ski jump on ISS," Noguchi told reporters in Japan late Thursday.

Endeavour shuttle pilot Terry Virts took a shot at the luge, floating down a space station module feet first. His crewmate Kathryn "Kay" Hire twirled endlessly in what the spaceflyers called the ultimate "figure skating triple-lindys."

Virts said he and his crewmates have enjoyed looking down at Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, where the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are in full swing.

"We've been having some really nice night passes over the Olympics," Virts radioed Mission Control early Friday.

They also squeezed in some zero gravity diving — basically somersaulting while floating in place — though admittedly they should probably save that for the Summer Olympics, the astronauts said.

And like the Olympics, the shuttle and station astronauts even have a special emblem. But instead of five interlocked rings, they have mission patches emblazoned on their space clothes and equipment.

Playing sports in space is nothing new.

Astronaut Alan Shepard — one of the first seven NASA astronauts — played golf on the moon in 1971 during the Apollo 14 mission. His first swing was a bust, but he hit home on the second try — his ball going for "miles and miles," he radioed Mission Control at the time.

Thirty-five years later, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin whacked a golf ball off the International Space Station as part of a publicity stunt. A golf jacket is still on the space station today.

But there are some sports that have cropped up that defy any Olympic category.

Space station astronauts have come up with their own zero gravity sports. One involves tossing hefty bags of water around like medicine balls, then jumping on them while they move to see how far they could ride in weightlessness.

They have also held relay races from one end of the space station to another and challenged one another to float as far as they could without touching anything. The space station has about the same living space as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Still, Earth's Winter Olympics stoke the international spirit of the space station and shuttle astronauts. Currently, there are six astronauts on Endeavour — all from NASA and American. But one, mission specialist Nicholas Patrick, was born in England.

The space station is home to five spaceflyers: two Russians, two Americans and Noguchi.

Noguchi, who represents the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, told reporters in Japan that he has been keeping up with the Winter Olympics as much as possible, particularly because Japan has won a few medals.

His favorite so far: ski jumping and figure skating. Noguchi has been using the station's Internet connection to keep current on the Olympic standings.

"I know that there are wonderful athletes there, so we're hoping for great medals," Noguchi said in a message of support to the Olympic athletes. "I look forward to that. Good luck to you all."

Noguchi and his crewmates will say a final farewell to the Endeavour shuttle crew later today. The shuttle is due to undock from the space station tonight at 7:54 p.m. EST (0054 Saturday GMT).

Mission Control congratulated the crew late Thursday on a “mission of 'Olympic' proportions.”

"You are officially the only folks who are able to get more hang time then Shaun White," Mission Control said in a message.

White, the American snowboarder, took the gold Wednesday night in the men's halfpipe at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Endeavour and its crew are wrapping up a 14-day mission that delivered the new Tranquility room and Cupola observation deck to the $100 billion space station. The astronauts locked themselves inside the shuttle early Friday morning to prepare for tonight's undocking, after saying farewell to the station crew.

"Quiet dinner," Noguchi wrote on his Twitter page (Astro_Soichi) after saying farewell. "I already miss the shuttle guys."
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