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April 23rd, 2010
12:30 PM ET

Counting Down Cady: Astronaut vs. volcano

Editor's Note: Cady Coleman, Ph.D. is a NASA astronaut – a veteran of two space missions, who has logged over 500 hours in space. She is assigned to the Expedition 26 crew and is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station aboard the Russian Soyuz 25 in late 2010. Below is a blog written by Cady exclusively for CNN via NASA's Astronaut Office.

Astronaut Cady Coleman stranded at an empty airport terminal in Frankfurt, Germany.

Astronaut Cady Coleman stranded at an empty airport terminal in Frankfurt, Germany.

By Cady Coleman, Special to CNN

Planes, Trains and Automobiles vs. The Space Shuttle

It turned out to be easier for the crew of Discovery to undock from the International Space Station and land the space shuttle than for me to fly home to the United States after my training trip to Europe this past week! Just when you think you have it all figured out, Mother Nature throws a curve ball that forces us to reevaluate our place here on the planet.

Volcanic ash from an erupting volcano in Iceland caused most European airspace to be closed because of the potential for ingesting volcanic ash into aircraft engines. The space shuttle landed smoothly at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, but getting home from Frankfurt was a completely different story!

We had just finished a week of training at the European Space Agency, when Flight Director Bob Dempsey and I found ourselves stranded along with thousands of other passengers in Frankfurt. As more news about the nature of the cloud and our inability to predict or control it became clear, I realized that I needed to make more drastic backup plans if I wanted to salvage precious school vacation time with Jamey and Josh.

I began to consider travel alternatives that seemed like far-fetched jokes when we first got delayed. A 16 hour train ride to Rome, south of the volcano pollution, followed by a plane ride to the United States seemed excessive at first, but soon became a logical alternative to spending an indefinite amount of time in the hotel near the airport, or on the couches at the airport coffee stand.

A transatlantic ocean voyage was no longer out of the question – at least I’d be across the Atlantic within a week! I drew the line at hitchhiking with the merchant marines, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t consider it.

This quick summary doesn’t begin to describe the long hours waiting for delayed trains, or the eons we spent on hold with our emergency travel help line. Their advice was to re-route thru Stuttgart, London and then home. The potential folly of planning the trip through two additional airports that were presently closed due to the volcano pollution didn’t seem to worry them.

As you might suspect, Bob and I spent many additional hours in line at the airport, lining up a series of backup flights. In the end, along with multiple plane ticket alternatives, I had purchased train tickets to Rome, researched cruise passage across the Atlantic and considered flights from Morocco. I started to feel lucky if I got home in a mere week.

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It was interesting to spend a few days in a situation beyond your control: There were so many people affected and so many heart-wrenching stories. A fellow astronaut from the next ISS crew bound for the space station had only a few weeks left in the United States before launch, and could ill-afford a long delay. A nice young woman in the German army had only a week with her American fiancé, an American soldier deploying to Afghanistan until December.

I even heard about a young couple who couldn’t make it to their own wedding reception, but got married via Internet video – while their guests enjoyed the reception an ocean away. All of us wanted to leave Europe, but none of us could.

This kind of news can happen to us up on the space station as well. There is always some potential, hopefully small, that our six month tour on the ISS will be extended due to circumstances we don’t control. We can either pine away, wishing to be home with our families, or appreciate the opportunity to spend more time in a place that most people only dream of.

For me, the secret is to be fully present in the place you really are, as opposed to the place you wish to be... I don’t always achieve it, but that’s also my goal on a regular basis with the busy life of space station training.

Fortunately, the planets were aligned and I’m finishing this blog from my home in beautiful Massachusetts, looking at the first daffodils and tulips of the spring. The European airspace opened and Bob and I were lucky and persistent enough to be in place at the airport when they started handing out boarding passes. I’d like to send a special thanks to the manager of the coffee stand in Terminal B who was kind enough to allow me to nap on the couches there.

The space shuttle doesn’t use its engines to land, so it was relatively unaffected by the volcanic ash events. After installing new experiments on the ISS and performing an important series of spacewalks, Discovery fired its engines for the de-orbit burn on Tuesday and brought her crew of seven home to their friends and families.

Follow Cady on Twitter @Astro_Cady

I can’t believe that Josh, Jamey and I saw the Discovery launch just 16 days ago… it seems like years! I arrived home, safe and sound, in Massachusetts just two days later than my original date. It has truly been a great couple of weeks for planes, trains, automobiles, boats – and the space shuttle. It turns out that we need all-of-the-above in our quest to explore our universe!

Cady


Filed under: Counting Down Cady • NASA
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