Mission to Mir

At the start of a new partnership, U.S. and Russian space travelers learn that every long journey begins with a single step.

Norm Thagard, NASA astronaut, watches intently as three men using a hand line pull fish from the lake in Star City. NASA might call this "in situ resource utilization." The Russians just call it dinner. In the lambent Russian twilight, Thagard approaches them, and they are instantly friendly. The Russians make a self-effacing joke as they regard their scaly little fish. Thagard alludes in halting Russian to exaggerated weights and measures and everyone laughs. To me, he adds in English, parodying his novice's accent and syntax, "You joke in foreign language, it's good." Then back in the twangless Houston accent that pervades the American space program, Thagard says, "Free food in Russia," adding a little pensively, "and they're having a good time." The latter thought seems to remind him of duty. Thagard bids the fishermen a good evening and says he must head home to review his day's notes on the Russian weightless toilet.

Thagard is part of a small NASA point team, the first Americans deployed at Star City--officially, the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center--to begin cooperation with the world's other space power. In March he will make history by becoming the first U.S. citizen to ride a Russian rocket and the first to work aboard the Russian space station Mir, where he will live for three months. NASA is planning to learn a lot from the Russians, who are old hands at enduring long stays in orbit. They started with a small Salyut space station in 1971 and are approaching 25 years of almost continuous presence in space. This achievement--not to mention the groping toward stable relations between Moscow and Washington--has led NASA to pursue a permanent U.S. presence in space by first pursuing a permanent U.S. presence in Star City. Thagard, Bonnie Dunbar, his mission understudy, operations director Ken Cameron, and Dave Ward, a physician and scientist, arrived there last February to make a foothold.

"We were going from square zero," says Cameron, a Marine colonel and astronaut. Cameron is sitting in a small two-room office--NASA's Star City headquarters, which he set up and directed until last August. It's located on the second floor of a three-story building erected in 1975 to house the U.S. side of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. The first floor serves as a pre- and post-flight quarantine to protect space crews from infection. When Cameron got there, he found two school tables, a cot, two chairs, and a rotary phone that occasionally worked. Six months and three shipments of computer and communications equipment later the place is a homely but serviceable office, where tea and coffee are served in cups with matching saucers. The dishes are washed in the bathroom sink and set to dry on a towel in a bidet that serves as a dish rack. Just outside the window a small black satellite dish that Cameron bolted to the balcony assures his connection to Houston.

Although Russian Space Agency representatives met the Americans at the airport and Star City director Pyotr Klimuk hosted them at a welcoming luncheon in the cosmonauts' dining hall, the NASA crew was tacitly encouraged to learn the ropes on their own. "We found out most of it just by seeing and doing," Thagard recalls. They learned how to buy necessities in the Star City shops, a challenge that forced them to practice their conversational Russian. And they encountered a few unexpected privations that compounded the stress of undertaking a new task in a foreign place with a difficult language. For instance, there were no maps of Star City to help them get their bearings in the once-secret installation. Cameron laughs now over what must have been a maddening nuisance at the time. "We had to make maps," he says. "It was a cultural difference as much as anything else. The Russians who had lived here for 10 or 20 years--there wasn't a need for a map. They knew where everything was. Typically maps from the Soviet regime were always secret."

When I ask if he could compare starting operations in Star City to a previous experience in his career, he says, "It had a feeling like a deployment. I've done some in the Marine Corps. We're such a small number and our support line--our logistics line--was so long," Cameron explains. "And the fact that it's this country in particular. We were going into what really was in a lot of ways to us just unknown. I mean it hadn't been very long [since armed revolution]. In October of the previous year, they'd been shooting downtown.

"You just couldn't even have been in here two or three years ago. It was just unheard of or impossible. And here we were. It was admittedly a very small start. We think we're making progress every day or every week."

Cameron, who managed operations for the complex Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, has a talent for seeing large, long-term projects as a series of individual tasks. "The intent is to build this international station with a lot of Russian assistance--a Russian partnership," he says. "And phase one of that is really to get started working with our partners. To learn to work together. We've got a huge language barrier, we've got a cultural divide, a chasm that we have to bridge, based on many many years of being on the opposite sides of a cold war. Our approaches to problems, our ways of thinking about things, our communication--there's a lot of things we have to get together on in order to make this work in space."

Cameron and his teammates are beginning to implement the agreement NASA and the Russian Space Agency forged last June. What NASA most wants from the partnership is a space station where astronauts can perform medical experiments during long-duration flights, experiments vital to future lengthy missions, like a trip to Mars. What the Americans offer is the shuttle. "That's not a small thing to offer," Thagard says. "One of the big problems they've had with their Mir station is that they don't have much ability to bring back payloads to Earth." When the shuttle that will bring Thagard back to Houston leaves Mir, it will also be carrying one of the station's gyroscopes. "There have been failures, but given the weight and size of the gyros, they haven't been able to bring one back. [This] will be the first time they've had the opportunity to determine the cause and come up with a fix for it."

The Americans also offer cash. In the first phase of a three-phase plan, NASA will pay the RSA $400 million to upgrade Mir for joint use through 1997. Phase one calls for seven shuttle-Mir dockings by December of that year. During that time five U.S. astronauts will accumulate two years of experience in the Russian station; the longest visit is planned to last five months. Phase two (1997-1998) will see the construction of a joint American-Russian space station. During phase three, which will carry into the next century, European, Japanese, and Canadian components will be added.

Thagard's mission precedes this agreement. His tour on Mir, which will set precedents for the next four astronauts, is the reciprocal half of a quid pro quo deal that put Sergei Krikalev aboard the shuttle in February 1994 and Vladimir Titov on this February.

During the week in August I watched Thagard training, his brief dalliance at the Star City lake was the single moment I saw him spend on a matter not related to his coming mission. He was halfway through a 12-month cram course--with classes in Russian and manuals in Cyrillic--on how to operate life support, communications, power, navigation, and waste disposal systems aboard Mir and the venerable Soyuz TM rocket that will get him there. Additionally, he must learn to work with Mir's various payloads and cameras. Before launch, he will be required to take oral exams in Russian to prove his mastery of the spacecraft systems.

Thagard appears equal to the challenge. He flew F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, is a licensed physician, and holds a master's degree in electrical engineering. He was one of 35 astronauts chosen in 1977 from over 8,000 applicants. Dan Brandenstein was running the astronaut program when Thagard was selected for the Mir-shuttle flight, and he says, "Norm was a pretty obvious choice if you read his bio. He was one of the few people in the office with a medical and engineering background."

Thagard skips breakfast and lunch. He didn't go to the U.S. Embassy Fourth of July party in Moscow because he had to stay home and study. He is training on an accelerated schedule because both sides want to take advantage of the momentum that the new partnership has provided. But he is also pushing himself hard because acing the oral exams while he's on the ground will get him more duties when he lives in Mir. He wants all the work he can get. The idea of being a symbolic passenger is anathema to him. He says: "The spirit of the quid pro quo agreement, if not the letter, was that NASA would regard cosmonauts as mission specialist astronauts--which is a NASA professional; that's what I am--and we expect them to regard us as cosmonauts and therefore considered for any normal role on the Soyuz or the Mir that a cosmonaut might fill."

When Thagard smiles his cheeks crease vertically, accentuating his athletic squareness. His thinning hair is sun-bleached. In a place where everyone seems pallid, he looks weathered, perhaps from his daily jogs around Star City. He has gone as long as five weeks without leaving the compound and admits to apprehensions that his self-imposed schedule will cause burnout before the launch.

In a classroom at the Star City training center, Thagard and his backup Bonnie Dunbar listen to Captain "Losha" (they use the affectionate appellation) Lepko explain the Russian system of life support. Lepko seems to understand how exacting the astronauts' own standards are. He teaches them Russian space jargon and gently corrects their conversational Russian.

Without Russian, one might easily believe the effusive Lepko is explaining an exotic computer game on a console with several dozen buttons and switches. Thagard works without a translator. He sometimes looks bemused, then he seems to translate the information to corresponding spacefaring data he has stored in English. He nods deeply three times, as though pumping all this together, makes a note, and refocuses on the lecture. "There's a sequential logic to learning how to operate the systems in a spacecraft that doesn't vary culturally," he says.

Immediately after being chosen to go to Star City, Thagard attended the Defense Language Institute Russian school for four and a half months. "The toughest thing is conversational Russian," he admits. "You don't have the narrow [technical] context. I understand the lectures 100 percent. But there are some Russian speakers in ordinary conversation that I understand virtually nothing of what they say."

Thagard and Dunbar work in both the Mir and the Soyuz mockups. Dunbar recalls the first time she nestled in her gray canvas sling seat inside the Soyuz command module, where the controls curve from the floor to overhead. There are hundreds of push buttons, toggle switches, thumb wheels, and what look like Bakelite circuit breakers. All, of course, are labeled in Cyrillic characters. "The only familiar thing in there were the numbers," she says.

Star City's Mir mockup has outgrown a building that could handle two basketball courts. Its newer modules, KVANT and KRISTALL, are nearby but unattached. In space, the five-module Mir appears as an enormous tubular cross. Its wing-like photovoltaic panels look frail as ribbons. Latticework masts poke up five stories tall. The shuttle, with its cargo doors open, will dock with the Mir like a bird attached by its cervical spine to one end of a cosmic crucifix. "It's thrilling to approach the little satellites we bring home," shuttle veteran Ken Cameron says. "It will be overwhelming to see the size of Mir in space and to fly up to it knowing the people in it." A shuttle crew will get their first look this February, on Discovery's mission to rendezvous but not dock with the station.

The Mir interior reflects Russian studies in spacefaring psychology that Thagard would like to see adapted in all spacecraft. The color scheme, he notes, is consistent throughout the five modules. To negate the disorientation of weightlessness, where there is no up or down, the floors are all rose-colored, the walls a baby blue, and the ceiling the diffuse gray of an overcast sky. Additionally, every equipment cover, locker, and access panel is numbered, denoting how far forward or aft the item is located.

Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of life aboard Mir is the noise. With all the life support systems, pumps, motors, and fans, Mir's audio ambiance is "somewhat like the inside of a vacuum cleaner," according to Gennady Strekalov, a veteran cosmonaut whose mission with Thagard will be his fifth spaceflight and his second stay on Mir. "But it doesn't preclude normal conversational tones." The sudden absence of a part of the background noise can be far more disconcerting. "Any little change in the sounds inside the space station is very troubling. It will wake you up," says Strekalov. "But I've spent so much time in the space station that with help from ground control, I can handle any problems." Strekalov lived on Mir for 132 days in 1990.

Thagard says he takes comfort from the fact that Strekalov is so knowledgeable about the Soyuz and Mir. He also finds his 54-year-old colleague among the most amiable and professional people in the Russian space program. "We haven't spent much time together, but when we do there's a good feeling there," he says.

Strekalov, who may have been softened by a desk job as a civilian engineer for the Russian design institute NPO Energia, marvels at Thagard's voluntary physical regimen. The cosmonaut's canny, perpetually content face retains the slight puffiness of his many months of weightlessness the way Thagard's holds a residual Houston tan. He describes Thagard's training as one would brag about the achievements of a prodigious friend. "We would spend two years or longer to learn what Norm is doing in one year, and he's doing it in a foreign language," Strekalov says.

Vladimir Dezhurov, the 33-year-old mission commander, is a muscular former fighter pilot who radiates willingness. He has trained since 1986 for this, his first spaceflight, and approaches his mission with a characteristic Russian romanticism. "It would be unnatural for only one culture to explore space," he says. Thagard appreciates Dezhurov in his thoughtful, trenchant way. "Volodya," he says, using the affectionate form of Vladimir, "is so confident as mission commander that he doesn't ride herd on anyone."

Because of the accelerated schedule, Strekalov, Dezhurov, and Thagard will train together as a crew only for the last few months before the flight, and Russian trainers are watching closely for any signs of incompatibility. Dunbar and Thagard spent two days of winter survival training under Dezhurov's command in March, and when they got back to Star City, the first question their trainers asked them was "What did you think of Vladimir?" Thagard called him "good company" and added, "We all were. Explorers, by nature, are tolerant."

Both sides will undoubtedly make accommodations. Thagard is accustomed to working, unofficially, 20-hour days for a week or more in the shuttle. He has lost 23 pounds in his four shuttle flights, a fact he mentions with a hint of pride in having worked long and hard every time he has orbited. Sustaining that pace for three months in Mir, he realizes, would be impossible, although he has no plans for leisure time other than playing a couple of computer games he might take along. He shrugs and allows that he "really enjoys a little window time in orbit."

During his 90 days aboard Mir, Thagard will manage a suite of 20 experiments to assess the human reaction to microgravity, a medical agenda that a team of U.S. and Russian life scientists hammered out last summer at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Mos-cow. Using technologies like a cardiac echo Doppler device to measure the size and shape of the heart and the rate of flow through blood vessels, Thagard will be studying his own and his crewmates' bodies for reports to both Russian and U.S. investigators. His work will be complicated by a delay in the launch of the SPEKTR module, a Russian-built annex to Mir carrying Russian remote-sensing cameras and stuffed with 1,600 pounds of U.S. electronics and life sciences instruments. There were two equally thorny problems with the module: integrating U.S. equipment with Russian hardware and getting U.S. products through Russian customs. Both have apparently been overcome and the SPEKTR will be launched in June. In the meantime, the Russians are shipping 251 pounds of U.S. research hardware, including a blood collection kit, frozen urine and frozen saliva kits, and a thermal electric freezer, on a Progress vehicle in February. "Norman's still going to have plenty of work to do," says Ken Cameron. "We're going to get a lot out of this joint mission even if all our equipment doesn't make it up there the first time."

Merging the two countries' life sciences research entailed other cultural complications that, six months before the flight, remained to be resolved. Although the Russians have shared the results of their decades of experimentation and observation on the effects of long-duration weightlessness, U.S. researchers have had difficulty interpreting the results. Victor Schneider of NASA's Division of Life and Biomedical Science Applications explains that in the past, the two sides used incompatible measuring tools and standards. "If you are trying to get a basic reading on, for example, a blood sugar level, even in different laboratories within the United States, you'll find inconsistencies," he says. "What one lab would say is a low value could be called normal or high in another lab. There are differences in the definitions of normal. There are also differences in readings based on the use of different equipment or techniques."

The fact that Thagard and his crewmates will be the 54th, 55th, and 56th people on Mir represents a further difficulty in drawing conclusions from the Russian studies of the effects of microgravity. Medical studies on Earth routinely use more than 100 subjects and have a large group of control subjects as well. The number of experimental subjects that have been on Mir is still too small to enable scientists to conclude which countermeasures can be used to control which effects.

"It hasn't been easy settling on the medical agenda," says Dave Ward, the soft-spoken NASA flight surgeon in residence at Star City. "There's been much discussion, misunderstanding, disagreements, and many cultural accommodations on both sides. Russians do science a little bit differently than we do. From the perspective of medicine, they use an Eastern-type approach, which is problem-oriented. They see a problem, they try several things at one time to fix it and they don't know exactly which one worked. Russians, I think, by nature are very creative and innovative. If you look at the West, we've evolved a type of science that's very specific and methodical. Our kind of science takes a lot of time and energy and a lot of people in your study."

One of the Russian habits Ward admires and would like to see Americans imitate is swift decision-making. "If someone here proposes a change in a program and it makes sense, a couple days later you see it in the conspects [the booklets that delineate every procedure]," he says. "In NASA too many people have a voice in change. The same proposal can take months and often gets so bogged down in review process that even the simplest changes never make it."

Regardless of the differences between the Russian and U.S. space programs, there is at least one overriding similarity of purpose. All of the long-duration studies, the plans for construction of an international space station, the biomedical experimentation, and the new attempt at partnership are aimed at getting to Mars. In an odd twist for a country that at one time had so many secrets, the Russians have been more explicit about this goal than the Americans. For decades the slogan of the Soviet space program has been "On to Mars." "Russian people and a lot of the Americans really feel that our best business is to get off the Earth, get to the moon, and go on to Mars," says Ken Cameron.

Hurrying after Thagard one day as he hustled from one class to the next, I asked about his philosophical projections--what he thinks his mission means in a larger context. Will it lead to an expansion of the human habitat? Will we one day go to Mars and beyond?

"I can't think that far ahead," he answered, his unfaltering footsteps echoing in the long hallway. "I can only think about this mission. We're studying life science, learning more about the human organism in microgravity. The engineering and navigation to get to Mars we can do." Thagard slowed his pace, nodded his head deeply three times, and said, "Incrementally, inevitably, we'll keep going out there."

Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, February/March 1995. Copyright 1995, Smithsonian Institution. All Rights Reserved.