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Astronaut David Wolf in the space shuttle Atlantis.

Astronaut David Wolf is seen on the mid-deck of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2002.

Photograph courtesy NASA

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published July 6, 2011

When the space shuttle Atlantis launches for the final time this summer, NASA's 30-year-old shuttle program will draw to a close, and shuttle astronauts will become an even rarer breed than they already are. (Video: "Space Shuttle's Final Days.")

One of those lucky few is David Wolf, a veteran NASA astronaut who has been to space four times since 1993, participated in seven spacewalks, and spent 128 days aboard the Russian Mir space station, the precursor to the International Space Station.

We asked Wolf to share some of his most memorable experiences from his historic visit to the Mir space station, which began with a ride aboard Atlantis.

The Great Jelly-Juice Spill

Atlantis docked with the Russian space station in 1997, delivering Wolf for his extended stay. Unfortunately for Wolf, things got off to a messy start.

During his ceremonial first meal with his new crewmates—Mir-24 commander Anatoly Solovyev and flight engineer Pavel Vinogradov—Wolf was presented with a container holding a prized fruit drink made of black currant jelly and pulp.

"It was like thick grape juice," Wolf recalled.

After a mix-up that involved cutting the wrong end of the container, Wolf accidentally squirted the jelly juice onto the wall and air duct of Mir's main living quarters, as well as onto a cassette tape player and tape case.

"This large amorphous blob moved across the cabin, and nobody could react quick enough to do anything," Wolf said. "It eclipsed the lights with a large shadow as our wide eyes and open mouths tracked it. That was my first moment with my new crew."

As penance, Wolf—a medical doctor and electrical engineer by training—disassembled and cleaned the tape player and volunteered to clean the living quarters for the rest of his stay aboard Mir.

Because of that experience, Wolf said he was somewhat relieved when Mir was finally decommissioned and deorbited in 2001.

"I felt a bit of nostalgia, but there was a hint of joy as well, because the evidence of my misdeed was buried forever in the Pacific."

(Related: "What Yuri Gagarin Saw on First Space Flight.")

Awestruck by Earth

On Wolf's first Mir spacewalk "our egress out the hatch occurred in total darkness," he said. (See pictures of the "evolution" of NASA's spacesuit.)

"Everything was fine, but about 20 minutes later, we blasted into sunlight and suddenly the Earth was completely visible 250 miles [400 kilometers] below and passing by at 5 miles [8 kilometers] per second.

"Once the Earth became illuminated, it just gripped my attention and I was white knuckled and hanging on until I relaxed."

(Also see "Pictures: 20 Stunning Shots of Earth From Space.")

"All astronauts, when they first see it, are literally taken aback by the beauty and the finite nature of the planet," Wolf added.

"It's Earth in its purest form. There are no borders, and the colors are deeper than can be exhibited in a photograph. ... I have [logged] more than 170 days in space, and my last look at Earth from space was just as exhilarating as my first."

Stranded in Wonderland

The first spacewalk for Wolf almost became his last after a glitch with the airlock left him and a fellow spacewalker stranded outside Mir for several hours.

"When I look back at that experience, I shudder," Wolf said. "But at the time, the two of us were just trying to resolve the problem step-by-step and I didn't even feel nervous."

Despite the dangers, Wolf said spacewalks are among his most treasured memories from his time in space.

"There's nothing more magical in human experience than clipping a tether onto the outside of a spacecraft and pulling yourself outside into this deep black void," Wolf said.

"There's no up or down, and you have to be very careful to maintain your orientation and direction. It's like Alice's Wonderland."

(Related pictures: "Five Myths of Challenger Shuttle Disaster Debunked.")

Moved to Tears

During his rare moments of free time aboard Mir, Wolf watched movies on a laptop, sometimes with macadamia nuts floating within easy reach in a halo around him.

Wolf said he was surprised by how much more powerful films could be when viewed in the isolation of space far from home, family, and friends.

"I shed my first tear quite unexpectedly in space while watching Apollo 13," Wolf said.

"After you've been away from home for months, movies feel like your only connection back to Earth, and your mind takes you into them very quickly and deeply."

Farewell, Space Shuttle

After building so many memories while in orbit, Wolf says he has mixed feelings about the end of the shuttle era.

"I believe the space shuttle program will be looked upon throughout history as one of the most ambitious examples of human spirit," he said.

"It's sad to see it come to a close, but we've learned an enormous amount and we will be applying what we've learned to our continued programs."

Also see "Buzz Aldrin, First Man (to Pee) on the Moon, Sounds Off" >>

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