James F. Reilly II had a chance to observe the northern part of
Africa on a recent field trip.
"You can just imagine looking down between your feet
and seeing North Africa go by at 250 miles away," he recalled. "That
was one of the things that amazed the heck out of me."
Okay, so Reilly isn't your normal petroleum geologist.
As many AAPG members know, he's a mission specialist
for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
-- a real-life astronaut who is now a veteran of the NASA team.
His most recent mission to the International Space
Station in July sent him on three space walks, or Extravehicular
Activity (EVA) outings in astronaut-talk.
On those EVAs, Reilly helped install a key component
of the Space Station.
They also gave him an unforgettable look at Earth
from the edges of outer space.
Even now, the experience astounds him.
"The whole thing is just incredible," he said. "You
do so much stuff in the course of a mission, and then when you turn
back and look at it ... It's not until you see the videotape or
hear the audio that you realize how much you did."
From One Frontier to Another
Reilly's flight path to space started with a 17-year
career in petroleum geology. That experience included work in submersibles,
looking at communities of non-photosynthetic organisms in the Gulf
When NASA began recruiting a variety of scientists
into the space program, Reilly -- who had wanted to be an astronaut
since the age of 9 -- saw his opportunity.
In 1985 he put in an application with NASA and, in
his words, "just kept working at it."
Now he qualifies as a seasoned space veteran. His
11-day mission on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which began July 12,
wasn't his first trip to a space station. During a Shuttle mission
in 1998, he visited Russia's Mir outpost.
Even weeks after his recent flight, Reilly recalled
vividly the time spent waiting on the launch pad, the minutes of
blast-off and the hectic activity required to get the Space Shuttle
He said it was "organized pandemonium trying to change
that vehicle from a launch vehicle to an orbiter. There's an awful
lot to do in a short period of time."
Later, the five members of the Atlantis crew linked
with the three-member crew of the Space Station.
"If I have to pick one thing as most memorable, it
will be how we worked together as a crew, as the two crews came
together as one. We had the Expedition guys up there, who we didn't
get a lot of time to train with on the ground," he said.
"It was probably the busiest time in my life. We
were all working 16-hour days and getting in sleep where we could.
It was just incredible."
Because they had a full schedule of duties and a
number of important tasks to accomplish during the mission, Reilly
and his fellow crew members worked on a schedule coreographed minute
"If anything had gone seriously wrong, we'd have
been in trouble -- we wouldn't have had time to complete everything,"
he said. "But everything worked pretty much perfectly throughout.
The crew worked perfectly."
Walking to Work
His assignment included three EVAs outside the Space
Station, and by coincidence, one of Reilly's space walks happened
to fall on the same day of the year as man's first steps on the
"The day we came out was the anniversary of the first
EVA on the moon, July 20. We were within just a few minutes of the
same time," he said. "That was pretty nice, to be able to do that."
Reilly and fellow astronaut Mike Gernhardt drew the
task of configuring the Space Station's new airlock prior to installation.
Anyone who's ever watched an episode of "Star Trek" knows what an
airlock is. Before going into space, you get in the airlock, an
airtight door closes behind you, and then an outer door opens.
Of course, no real airlock on a star cruiser would
ever work that way, as Reilly noted. For a space vehicle, air is
far too important to waste.
There's no reason to "just exhaust the atmosphere
out into space. That's a precious commodity on orbit, for a space
"It's something you don't want to get rid of," he
"With this airlock, we scavenge most of (the air)
by pumping it back into the station. We pumped the airlock down
to 5 psi in our case, and we're probably going to pump it down even
The airlock is designed to recover more than 90 percent
of the air it contains, according to Reilly. That's an important
efficiency measure for the Space Station, he said, because "every
pound of gas that goes into orbit costs something like $10,000."
After Reilly and Gernhardt prepared the airlock in
the Shuttle's hold, the robotic arm of the Space Station was used
to position it for installation. The arm, made in Canada, is part
of the Space Station Robotic Manipulation System. It's usually called
the SSRMS, or simply the Canadarm."
Crew members then began the complex operation of
mating the airlock to the Station by joining power, data and fluid
lines and completing numerous other connections.
"When you think about it, you're basically plumbing
and wiring your house in one day, with all those connections," Reilly
The 6.5-ton airlock, named Quest, permits spacewalks
without a space shuttle attached to the Station. It can accommodate
both Russian and U.S. spacesuits.
Reilly installed four bars on the airlock to serve
as attachment points for oxygen and nitrogen high-pressure tanks,
put in place on later EVAs. The third spacewalk for Reilly and Gernhardt
utilized the new airlock itself.
"One of the interesting aspects of the airlock is,
when you open the hatch you're looking straight down at the Earth.
You don't see anything but the Earth going by 250 miles away," he
"My partner Mike described it as like skydiving from
250 miles up. And he's not far from wrong."
Experience Pays Off
Reilly's mission ended the second phase of Space
Station construction. Later work will prepare the station for adding
its working laboratories.
"With this flight we're now complete with Phase II,
which is basically making it an operational station, with all the
functions we need," he explained.
"The next things up are going to be a series of trusses
that will go out laterally from the station to put additional solar
arrays on. So basically, from here on out, we're just going to be
adding power until we get the Japanese and European lab modules
After another mission successfully completed, Reilly
now will become a support resource for future Shuttle flights. And
he still hopes for another visit to the Space Station.
"I'll be working in the Shuttle program, working
on training and our procedures for Space Shuttle missions," he said.
"Then, I hope, I'll get another flight and get a chance to do this
all over again."
He's also signed on to speak and present a paper
at AAPG's 2002 annual meeting March 10-13 in Houston. Reilly said
his primary topic will be remote imaging and the storehouse of Earth
photos now available from NASA.
"We've been taking hand-held photographs of the Earth
for 40 years, and we've got over 300,000 images now," he said. "I'll
be talking about what we've done in the past and what we plan for
The Space Station includes an "optically pure" window
for observing and photographing the Earth, he added, and scientists
on the Station will conduct dedicated experiments in Earth Science.
And the View Was ...
According to Reilly, images from space have already
helped a team of academics, NASA experts and other scientists scouting
the Earth for a special location:
"We've been looking at Earth analogues, to see what
we might be looking at on Mars," he said. "If we ever go there,
how are we going to train people to explore Mars here on Earth?"
When Reilly reflected on his recent mission, he spoke
in amazement at progress of the Space Station. It represents a complex
accomplishment in the most hostile of environments, far above the
surface of the planet.
"We've come an awfully long way in putting the Station
together, and it's amazing that everything is working. It's an incredible
engineering project," he said.
During their visit to the Station, Reilly and Gernhardt
climbed up one of the solar-panel trusses for a view almost 60 feet
above everything else.
"You can look out both directions and see the Station,
and then the Space Shuttle attached to the other end. And past all
that, of course, was the Earth going by at a fairly good clip,"
"At some point in my life, I'll look up at the sky
and think about helping to put that thing together. That's going
to be pretty spectacular."
Listening to Reilly's description of working and
walking in space, it's not hard to understand the appeal of an astronaut's
The hours are long. The pay probably isn't what it
should be. The commute is brutal.
But the views are out of this world.