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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.

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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.

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