In the Age of Spaceplanes

Stories from the shuttle astronauts, in their own words.


Norm Thagard: What's Wrong with the American Shuttle Program


My Russian crewmates and I were supposed to have a 90-day stay on Mir, and it wound up being 115 days because of shuttle delays in coming up to bring us home. I’m not sure Gennady Strekalov, the flight engineer on the station, ever wanted to fly the mission in the first place, and he was basically ready to go home. They had called him out of semi-retirement for the flight, and his daughter was getting married in September. This was late June, and if the shuttle didn’t pick us up, we might have had to stay as long as six months, when we’d come back in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station, which has a lifetime in orbit of only six months.

Weather was bad at the Cape, so they canceled the shuttle launch. Gennady, Volodya Dezhurov, and I had all been looking out the window, and we could see that the weather was bad over virtually the whole southeastern U.S. But after we passed over, Gennady says, “There was nothing wrong with that weather. It was clear down there!” Well, Volodya is behind Gennady, and he kind of boosts himself up so he’s a little higher than Gennady, and starts pointing down toward the top of his head and looking at me like, “What is he thinking?”

Now, Gennady is usually just a sweetheart, the nicest guy in the world. But he was frustrated, and this was about the only time I ever remember him really trying to goad me. He looks at me and says, “There’s absolutely no excuse for a crew not to launch for anything other than a problem with a rocket. We’ll just stay up here and go back on the Soyuz.” He’s looking at me, and he’s telling me what’s wrong with the American shuttle program. So I just said, “That’s fine with me, Gennady. I’d like to go home on the Soyuz. I’ve never done an entry on a Soyuz. You, on the other hand, are going to miss your daughter’s wedding.” And that kind of shut him up. The shuttle launched three days later.

Pictured: The STS-71 shuttle crew visits the Russian Mir space station in June 1995. Norm Thagard is wearing light blue at lower right. Gennady Strekalov is the other one in light blue, to Thagard's right.

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