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.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, October 2008
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."