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
(Page 3 of 5)
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."