A glimpse of an astronaut's life in space

Worrying about screwing up is part of the job, Camas native and astronaut Mike Barratt says

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



Did you know?

• NASA awarded about $270 million to four commercial companies on April 18 to develop rockets and spacecraft capable of flying astronauts into orbit and to the International Space Station. The biggest share ($92.3 million) went to Boeing. Other awards went to Sierra Nevada Corp., $80 million; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), $75 million; and Blue Origin, $22 million.

The thought of riding a controlled explosion into an environment that can’t support human life might strike some people as material for a nightmare.

After the final Discovery flight, interviewers asked the astronauts if they’d noticed any clanks and rattles while riding in a shuttle that had 148 million miles on the odometer.

There are plenty of aspects about life in space that could inspire a techno-thriller. But those aren’t the things astronauts tend to worry about, said Camas native Mike Barratt, a member of the final Discovery crew. (Atlantis ended the space shuttle era with a final flight this month.)

“What you need to understand is that astronauts are a lot more afraid of screwing up than blowing up,” Barratt said July 23 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

“Most of the areas where we are in real danger are calculated, and we have duties and we’re focused. That’s how you want it to be.

“Launching, landing, rendezvous, docking and spacewalks tend not to be our scariest memories,” he said.

“The scariest things I think about,” Barratt said, included an assignment “to fix a really expensive piece of equipment. I had the video set up because several hundred people on the ground were going to be watching over my shoulder.

“I had sweated bullets, spending hours getting ready for this. I had the instructions. With two minutes to go, the piece I had ready was gone,” Barratt said. “It had floated away.

“Those two minutes were probably the biggest panic I had ever had in my life.”

“That is where our anxieties lie,” said Barratt, a guest speaker at OMSI’s annual Astronomy Day.

Another fix-it job, involving a carbon-dioxide scrubber, resembled one of those ticking-time-bomb plot lines on the TV series “24.” There were 64 wires, and Barratt had to find the right one to cut.

They were within 48 hours of having to send home half the space station crew, he said. “That was a bit of pressure.”


Astronauts have reported having nightmares in space, according to NASA. At least somebody who’s having a bad dream isn’t likely to interfere with a crewmate’s peaceful slumber.

A few astronauts have single-occupancy cabins; the others sleep just about anywhere, according to a NASA news site, as long as they attach themselves to something. Space agency officials don’t want crew members floating around in their sleep.

That’s not the only way weightlessness affects an astronaut’s sleep routine, Barratt said.

“You’re not going to be lying down. Up and down is what you choose to make it,” Barratt said. “Some people strap themselves tightly to a wall so they get the experience of a mattress.”

Barratt also described a couple of bed-time scenarios that could have come right out of a haunted-house film.

“I had a guy who didn’t have a crew quarter so he would hang out in his sleeping bag. I was always the last to bed and I would do my rounds and would float by him.”

Even though the man wore a sleeping mask to cover his eyes, “he would kinda creep me out sometimes,” Barratt said. “I swear, he’s looking at me, he’s tracking me.”

Barratt has made two trips to the International Space Station. He helped close out the U.S. shuttle program on Discovery’s last flight, a 13-day mission that ended March 9.

He also blasted off in a Russian Soyuz capsule on March 26, 2009, for a 199-day mission.

In an earlier interview, Barratt discussed another aspect of life on a huge structure with a tiny population.

“The station is so big that it’s easy to lose track of things,” Barratt said.

There are times, the 1977 Camas High School graduate noted, when “you’re a free-range chicken up there.”

Steady the camera

After his 2009 trip, Barratt recalled exploring the sprawling space station to find a good vantage point for taking photographs.

“Any time we could, we tried to take pictures of home,” Barratt said.

“There is a docking compartment in the Russian segment, where we store Russian space suits,” Barratt said.

“It’s also a good place to take photos. They keep it dark. You can look out the window at the stars or city lights, and I went down to do night photos,” he said.

“A few days later, I went down there and was looking out the window, trying to take a picture of an aurora or something.

“I backed up against the space suit behind me, which I’d often do to stabilize myself,” he said.

Then suddenly …

“An arm grabbed me. I almost jumped out of my skin.”

That “space suit” actually was a sleeping bag. Billionaire space tourist Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, had tethered his sleeping bag next to the space suits.

“I woke Guy up, and he scared the daylights out of me,” Barratt said.

“I almost went through the wall.”