NASA Public Affairs Office
Getting the Shuttle-Mir story out to the public was an interesting
story all in itself.
On the one hand, NASA’s Public Affairs Office had an institutional
tradition going back to the Project Mercury days of the late 1950s and
early 1960s of providing timely information and access to the international
news media. Every U.S. human space launch had been televised - live.
On the other hand at the time of Shuttle-Mir, the Russian space program
was just emerging from the Soviet era of strictly controlled information.
It had neither the tradition nor all the needed physical capabilities
for providing for the functioning of a "free press."
Over time, the U.S. and Russian public affairs officials developed
a good working relationship and mutual respect. In particular, the two
1997 contingencies of the Mir fire and the Progress collision actually
helped to improve and expand openness and cooperation. In some ways,
the media’s access to Moscow operations became more open than their
access to operations in Houston.
A NASA/Russian Public Affairs Plan was developed and signed prior
to NASA-1 Mir Astronaut Norm Thagard’s 1995 flight onboard a Soyuz capsule
to the Mir. This plan outlined the exchange of information, photographs,
video, biographies, preflight and mission press conferences, exchange
of in-flight television, in-flight interviews, written status reports,
protocol activities, guest operations, receptions, commemorative items,
and a contingency plan.
NASA placed Public Affairs representatives on a rotating basis at Mission
Control Center-Moscow (MCC-Moscow) for Thagard’s 105-day Mir mission
(March 16-June 29, 1995). When Atlantis (STS-76) launched with
NASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid on March 22, 1996, NASA Public Affairs
Officers started a continuous presence in MCC-Moscow. By June 1997 (the
month of the Progress collision), a permanent Public Affairs Office
(PAO) was located at MCC-Moscow and remained in placed through the end
of the Shuttle-Mir program. Kathleen Maliga from NASA Headquarters was
the first permanent PAO in Moscow.
From the beginning of the program, the NASA/Russian Public Affairs
Working Group (WG-1) was responsible for the planning, development,
and execution of all aspects of public affairs. This included the issuing
of press releases, status reports and press kits; the scheduling and
conduct of press conferences; the distribution of television and photographs;
the coordination and execution of interviews by media and educational
organizations with crew members on both the Space Shuttle and Mir; guest
operations; and the selection and logistical coordination of commemorative
items such as plaques and flags. In addition, PAO assisted with the
coordination of the international television and video crews who documented
space hardware and astronaut/cosmonaut training, and observed mission
control operations in both the U.S. and Russia.
NASA and MCC-Moscow Public Affairs representatives also finalized the
weekly in-flight PAO events with U.S. astronauts onboard Mir. Through
the eyes of television cameras on the Mir, audiences throughout the
world watched a variety of crew activities on the Russian station, such
as spacecraft dockings and spacewalks.
The value of having a PAO at MCC-Moscow became clearly evident
in 1997, when the world’s news media paid increased attention to Mir
and its fire during NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger’s mission and
the Progress collision during NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale’s mission.
To coordinate the timely release of accurate information to the news
media in Moscow, the NASA PAO worked closely with the NASA Operations
Lead, with Russian Public Affairs representatives, and with Public Affairs
officials at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, and at Johnson Space
Center in Houston. This was a challenge for both the American and Russian
space programs, especially with the time zone difference between Moscow
and the U.S.
NASA and MCC-Moscow management held news briefings on an almost daily
basis after the Progress collision. NASA released daily written status
reports for weeks following the collision.
Debra Rahn co-chaired the Public Affairs WG-1 with Dr. Valerie
Udaloy, beginning in early 1994. In her Oral History, Rahn said that
in some ways the media had more access to Russian space facilities than
it had to NASA’s, particularly in the area of astronaut training.
"Typically," Rahn said, "NASA does not permit U.S. news
media to come in and cover astronaut training because it's too disruptive.
We document it [the training] and make it available."
Furthermore, Mission Control Center-Moscow was set up with a balcony
overlooking the control center. According to Rahn, "There’s no
partition or glass between the balcony and the ground controllers down
below. So they [the Russians] let the press and the VIPs mix during
major events, which is something that typically we [in NASA] keep separate."
Another difference between NASA and the Russian space program was
the Russian practice of charging the media for access to the Russian
facilities for interviews and tours. Working Group 1 discussed this
issue on several occasions. According to Rahn, "Basically we agreed
to disagree." A compromise was reached in which the Russians would
not charge the media for access to the American astronauts. However,
the Russians continued charging the media for access to Russian facilities
The biggest challenge, Rahn said, may have been the eight-hour
time difference between the U.S. East Coast and Moscow, "...and
so when we [woke] up in Washington, DC, a lot of things [had] already
"Things have been on the wires, news reports on television....
A lot of people — in Washington, in the Administration, in Congress
— wanted to know everything as it happened. But with the eight-hour
time difference, we were always playing catch-up first thing in the
morning," said Rahn.
"After the collision, we changed our weekly Mir status reports
to daily status reports, and we had press conferences frequently with
(Shuttle-Mir Program Manager) Frank Culbertson, ... which were very
useful in keeping the news media up to date. We tried to give everyone
the latest information...."
Debra Rahn said that, "All in all, I think that we did work
very well with the Russians on this.... It’s always very difficult in
time of contingencies, to make sure that the information is accurate.
And, it may be accurate at the moment, but then you get more information
later that changes the initial information...."
From a Public Affairs perspective according to Rahn, because the Progress
collision happened towards the latter part of the Shuttle-Mir program,
"...we had established a very good working relationship with [the
Russians] and a lot of trust. And I think that because of that, ...
things worked out relatively [as] well as they could [have] under the
Debra Rahn's Oral History