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Space-bound

Science | For Col. Jeffrey Williams and the newest space station crew, home has been remodeled and remortgaged but remains an experiment

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

Col. Jeffrey Williams declined the peach ambrosia this time-it just doesn't rehydrate well in space. He did, however, request a hearty supply of shrimp cocktail with horseradish sauce after discovering during his last flight that he likes food a little spicier when dining among the stars. The extra "heat" clears his space-induced congestion.

The flavor of the food isn't the only aspect of the journey experienced with more intensity. Col. Williams says the awe and wonder of God's creation is magnified from 250 miles above Earth, invoking many passages in the Psalms. "It's amazing to view the Earth and the intensity and detail of the surface of the planet-from the oceans to the mountain ranges, river deltas, and cloud formations. You get a three-dimensional view," he told WORLD.

Such will be his window view until September if all goes as planned.

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On April 1, the International Space Station (ISS) opened its hatches to welcome aboard Col. Williams, 48, and his two fellow astronauts, Pavel Vinogradov from Russia and Marcos Pontes from Brazil. Although Mr. Pontes was scheduled to return to Earth with Expedition 12 on April 8, Col. Williams and his Russian teammate will remain as part of the 13th expedition to the space station since continual human presence commenced in November 2000.

Enduring criticism over soaring costs as well as the temporary suspension of NASA's shuttle flights-the primary cargo transport for space station additions-the ISS continues to expand with a projected completion date of 2010. In April, Col. Williams boarded the historic homestead as the flight engineer and science officer of Expedition 13 while his wife and two sons, ages 21 and 24, observed from Earth.

"It's hard to leave the planet for six months," Col. Williams said prior to the March 29 launch, acknowledging that he felt prepared for the mission but still had a long "to do" list: drafting a will, delegating power of attorney, and filing taxes. The most difficult aspect, however, is the separation from his wife: "We have a very special relationship, and we've never been separated this long."

His wife Anna-Marie says the hardest part of this mission and those prior is the moment the rocket or shuttle is rolled out in preparation for the launch. She says her sons know to step in when the tears start to flow: "My 24-year-old grabs me and gives me a great big hug until that moment passes and I'm a little stronger."

One way Mrs. Williams copes with the separation is by spending time in the outdoor "sanctuary" her husband created for her in their backyard. Lounging on the covered patio among the white lights her husband strung, she is able to gaze at the stars and envision the temporary residence of her husband.

It's one thing to know your husband is in New York, Mrs. Williams says, but visualizing him living in the International Space Station is hard. She has requested a picture of the inside of the ISS to hang in her home to help.

Advanced communications also help ease the loneliness. Col. Williams plans to make almost daily calls to his wife from the phone aboard the space station, and the video teleconferencing center recently assembled in Mrs. Williams' Houston living room will allow the couple to see each other at least once a week.

And, Mrs. Williams says, she still has help taking the garbage out: Her oldest son Brad and a friend are living at home, and 21-year-old Jason will join them this summer.

Living aboard the largest international science endeavor in history was an opportunity Col. Williams couldn't pass up. He visited the station in May 2000 during NASA's space shuttle Atlantis flight (see "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004). Only two modules comprised the ISS then. Now, the Russian Zveda service module and NASA's Destiny laboratory have expanded the living quarters of the station to roughly the size of a three-bedroom home.

"We're very pleased with the condition of the vehicle," Col. Williams said from space during an April 3 press conference. "It's a lot different than when I was last here. It's a lot more roomy."

Not everyone is as excited about the ISS project as Col. Williams and his fellow astronauts. Criticism abounds over the space station's seemingly endless dollar drain, and the more vocal critics argue that the often-quoted final cost estimate of $100 billion could easily fund numerous unmanned vessels to the outer perimeters of the universe or help solve some problems on Earth. The space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 furthered the pessimistic mood in some camps, and NASA's temporary suspension of shuttle flights jeopardized the future of the ISS and its international partnership.

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