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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.

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."

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