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 4 of 5)
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.