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The spectacular beauty & the dark side of the earth

By, Sergio Burns

Look up. You might have seen it. Travelling at a speed of 17,200 mph and at a height of between 205 and 270 miles above our planet, orbiting the Earth 15.54 times a day. You might have imagined you had seen Scandinasian (half-Swedish, half-Chinese) astronaut Kjell Lindgren at one of the International Space Station windows, or heard the gentle skirl of his made-in-Kilmarnock bagpipes.

“We orbit the Earth every 90 minutes,” NASA astronaut Kjell told Ayrshire Magazine when we asked what can be seen from the windows of the International Space Station. “So we see a sunset and a sunrise about every 45 minutes. We call it astronaut television, we have several beautiful windows on the space station. The bottom of the US laboratory we have the famous ‘cupola’, there is a seven paned window that actually bulges out from the bottom of the space station, providing an amazing view of the Earth. You can just float there and watch sunsets and sunrises… and if you are fortunate you can see an aura from space every once in a while.”

In vast, dark space, high above the mother planet, the white roof of the International Space Station is momentarily showered with the golden rays of a distant, vigilant sun. Looking out into the infinite blackness, a thin edge of crimson and mimosa light arcs the Earth.

When not sightseeing, a typical day on the International Space Station starts at six am. After breakfast they look at, what they call, the daily summary – basically information on the state of the space station and what the day ahead looks like. This is followed by a morning conference with mission controls from all over the world: Houston (USA) ; Russia, Japan and Europe. Work would start at 7.30am, an hour for lunch and two hours of scheduled exercise fitted in between work activities, rounded off with a final conference, and a chance for the crew to talk about what had been achieved that day. The working day would finish around 7.30pm.

“The space station is a phenomenal outpost,” Kjell explained. “But our job up there, of course, is to do science and research, to extend our presence in the solar system, and also to improve life back here on Earth. We have a very, very busy technical and experimental schedule that is the purpose of the space station…to serve as a laboratory. So, our days are very busy doing science and also doing maintenance, corrective and preventative maintenance on the space station. It is, of course, almost 20 years old, we have had a continuous presence on the space station for over 17 years now, and we do have to do repairs and maintenance to keep it in working shape.”

Kjell Lindgren was born in Taipei, Taiwan. His father was in the US Air Force based in Taiwan at the time of American involvement in Vietnam. When Kjell was two the family migrated to the midwest United States, before his father was posted to the U.K. where Kjell spent his formative years.

“I think that certainly was a big part of establishing what I wanted to do,” Lindgren said thoughtfully. “Growing up in that environment around aircraft and seeing my father serve in the armed forces really formed in me a desire to serve, serve our country and then also to pursue flying and then… ultimately, being a part of human space flight. So, at the Air Force Academy (Colorado) I started out thinking that I wanted to do astronautical engineering because, even early on, this goal of becoming an astronaut was something that I was pursuing, with the understanding that it would be very challenging, and unlikely that I would ever have the opportunity. So I started out thinking I wanted to do engineering.”

Eventually, Kjell decided on a combination of Biology with a minor in Chinese Mandarin. He graduated with a BA in these subjects in 1995. He then took a masters in Cardiovascular Physiology from the University of Colorado, before completing a doctorate in Medicine also at Colorado.

“I decided, after I left the air force, that I wanted to pursue medicine,” he told me. “It represented another way to challenge myself and to serve the community.”

Lindgren was particularly interested in emergency medicine and completed several training courses, but held firm to his ambition of becoming involved in human space flight. This led him to the University of Texas, medical branch in Galveston.

“I had identified another training programme… in aerospace medicine,” he informed. “Essentially training to become a doctor who understands the rigours and the dangers associated with vacuum and the rigours of space flight. I applied and was accepted into this… a programme… jointly sponsored by NASA. It represented an opportunity to augment my knowledge and skills in medicine and with the possibility of becoming a flight surgeon at Johnson Space Centre at NASA. So, upon finishing emergency medicine I went to that programme and spent two years… and then ultimately was very fortunate to get a job at NASA, at Johnson Space Centre (Houston) as a surgeon.”

As a member of NASA Astronaut Group 20, Kjell Lindgren, launched to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on
July 22, 2015, and remained there until he returned to Earth
on December 11, 2015.

“I think the most challenging part of a long duration mission like this is being away from family and friends,” he said thoughtfully. “I never felt claustrophobic, the space station is
a very comfortable place to live now. We have the internal volume of about a five bedroom house. (But) you do get to a point where you miss being able to go outside, being able to hear birds and feel the wind, feel the rain. I had friends that sent recordings up to me at the space station, just the background noise from a restaurant…a street corner and from
a thunderstorm, and those are all very comforting sounds. I think you take that…freedom for granted and so that is something that you miss. Just to go outside… to take the dog
for a walk. That is something I missed and really enjoyed when I got back home.”

That must have been one lucky dog in the Lindgren household when his astronaut owner returned.

Kjell Lindgren, of course, will go down in history as the first crew member of the International Space Station to play the bagpipes in space.

“I learned here in Houston,” he said quietly. “My instructor (was) Stanley Fontenot. Living in the UK, I remember my parents taking us to a Military Tattoo and just seeing the pipers… in formation piping in these amazing parades. It always stuck with me, so that’s something that I’ve always enjoyed and something that I have always wanted to do, but never got around to it. In preparing a couple of years out from my mission, I thought that would be a neat way to honour the instrument and the culture. So, I committed to starting to learn and had to figure out how to get pipes on board and be able to play in orbit. Thankfully that plan all came together.”

The bagpipes were made by local Ayrshire company McCallums, based out at Moorfield, Kilmarnock. The chanter part of the instrument was made of plastic, so the bagpipes were lightweight and easily sanitised for the purposes of travelling safely to, and residing on, the International Space Station with Kjell.

On November 15, 2015, Kjell Lindgren, famously played ‘Amazing Grace’ in space and dedicated the performance to Victor Hurst (a scientist involved in astronaut training).

“Victor was a good friend and a very passionate researcher, scientist,” Kjell said solemnly. “We were absolutely shocked to hear of his passing during the mission. I had intended, initially, to play Amazing Grace for Veterans Day but on the occurrence of his death it was a private performance, a private message that we had sent to Victor’s family and friends. It was just a way for our crew to send their condolences to his family and friends.”

Over 200 miles out from Earth and in such a highly-charged atmosphere the sound of Kilmarnock-made bagpipes resonating around the tight acoustics of the International Space Station, and beyond across the universe, would have stirred the emotions. It might just have been enough to deter any lurking aliens with ambitions of interplanetary domination to ‘think again’.

But the experience for Kjell has proved profound, while there is, he admits, a romantic notion involved in human space flight, there is also a dark side to the beauty and serenity of orbiting the Earth.

“The view is spectacular,” He remembers. “It is breathtaking and really it is hard to describe. To be able to see the arc of the Earth, see the Earth’s atmosphere, just the thin band of atmosphere and really the beauty of the Earth. The wind currents etched on the Earth’s oceans, and to see clouds and just the ever changing colours and textures of the Earth’s geography. It is amazing but you also see the effect that humanity has on the Earth.”

He paused, allowing his words to float in the weightlessness of those huge issues that confront contemporary humankind.

“You can see deforestation, you can see pollution, you can see forest fires and that is a little heartbreaking,” he admitted. “What you come back from a mission like this with, is really a sense of how amazing but also how fragile the Earth is…that we as a planetary community really have to be committed to taking care of this planet. It is all that we have. You know people ask:’did you see aliens?’ I didn’t see any aliens, but what I did see is the Earth and that is it, and then it is the black void of space. There is nothing out there that is close by, it is a discrete entity and you recognise that resources are limited, that it is not an inexhaustible resource. Very much like the space station which we spend about 30 per cent of our time taking care of, doing preventative and corrective maintenance. We recognise that if we break the space station in a real way, if we do something dumb, we could endanger our own lives by not taking care of this space station that is taking care of us. That very quickly helps you understand that the Earth is humanity’s space station and that we really have to do a better job of taking care of the Earth because if we break the Earth it will cease to take care of us.”

There is a message here. In an age of apparent plenty, we might all end up with nothing if we don’t heed the warnings of climate change and the plundering of the world’s resources. All this from the colour and beauty of space.

“You know, it is such a privilege to fly in space,” he said as if he were thinking out loud. “You recognise that this is a unique opportunity, and it is a privilege to get to share that experience through media like this (Ayrshire Magazine). Growing up in England, growing up in UK, having the opportunity to visit Edinburgh and Scotland when I was young. To bring a part of that experience with me, the piping community were very kind. Clearly I am a novice piper but the community was very kind, the reception of my playing on orbit. So, I am deeply grateful for that, and deeply grateful for the support that I got from McCallums, helping to make this goal possible. To represent in a small way this ancient instrument and to represent Scottish culture in the space programme, and Ayrshire is a part of that team for sure.”

It was an unsolicited tribute from a very unassuming and personable man.

Kjell Lindgren hopes to once more travel to the International Space Station and undertake another mission. He is a man who describes the beauty of space in glowing terms but is also acutely aware of humankind’s need to become increasingly aware of the destructive tendencies of depleting the Earth’s resources.

This is our spaceship, he had told me, without it there wouldn’t be any ‘us’.