| Pulling It Together | Blaha Bio | Life on Mir | Letter | Ham Radio | Microgravity | Meanwhile |

Pulling It Together

Blaha arrives at KSC's Shuttle Landing FacilityJohn Blaha accomplished an important yet seldom remarked first. He was the first astronaut to directly follow a previous U.S. Mir resident. He thus forged the first link in a six-flight, two-and-a-half-year chain of Shuttle-Mir missions.

Before, during, and after his mission, Blaha worked to make sure all future missions would go as smoothly as possible. This included improving the "handover" from one increment to the next and working on communications—between Mir and the visiting Space Shuttles, between the NASA astronaut and the ground, and between Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the International Space Station Program.

It also meant speaking directly about situations and conditions on Mir. Before launching to Mir, Blaha said, "Every Shuttle flight I’ve flown, I’ve never wanted to come home on entry day. I really enjoyed being in orbit. I’ve always said I would stay there forever. I think that on this mission, I will define what ‘ever’ is."

For Blaha, the definition of "ever" was given a new meaning just weeks before he flew to Mir when he heard the announcement that heart problems had grounded Gennadi Manakov, the Russian Mir Commander with whom Blaha had trained. Both Manakov and Blaha’s other crewmate, Flight Engineer Pavel Vinogradov, were replaced by their backup crew of Valeri Korzun and Alexander Kaleri. Over the years of operating their space stations, the Russians had learned the value of keeping long-duration crews together. They believed replacing an entire crew was better than replacing a single crewmember. At this point, NASA was not in a position to do likewise and wanted Blaha to fly the Mir-22 mission with Korzun and Kaleri. Blaha had traveled to Kazakhstan and spent three days with the two Russian cosmonauts before their launch to the Mir aboard the Soyuz.

This crew change presented Blaha with a new challenge. Besides spending four months in orbit, immersed in another culture and a new language, he would be working and living with two men who—although professional and personable—were, in effect, strangers. Blaha had only taken a two-day winter survival training with Valeri Korzun.

Blaha’s road to Mir began with a personal realization about the future of spaceflight. In October 1991, while he was in Berlin, Germany, for a conference of the Association of Space Explorers, the possibility of joining the U.S. Space Shuttle and the Mir space station was discussed. Later, Blaha said, "I remember returning from that conference and thinking to myself, ‘We ought to be doing that right now.’" He considered his age—he was then 49—and his prospects for living aboard an American space station. And, he realized, "If I’m ever going to fly on a space station, I’m going to have to fly on the one that’s really up there." When Norm Thagard left for training in Star City, Blaha recommended that Shuttle pilots as well as mission specialists ought to experience Mir, and he volunteered for the Shuttle-Mir Program when the opportunity arose.

Mir-22 crew checks out food that will be available on MirThis decision certainly fit in as the next step in his professional life, which had been an archetypal pilot’s climb up through propeller trainers to jet fighters to rocket-propelled spacecraft. Born in 1942 in San Antonio, Texas, Blaha graduated from a Norfolk, Virginia, high school and received an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering science. He then earned his master’s degree in astronautical engineering from Purdue University, a famous "finishing school" for future astronauts. For the Air Force, Blaha flew F-4, F-102, F-106, and A-37 aircraft, completing 361 combat missions in Vietnam. In 1971, he became a test pilot and coaxed an NF-104 research aircraft to 104,400 feet—nearly 20 miles high. He then served as an instructor pilot at the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School and as a test pilot with the British Royal Air Force in Boscombe Down, UK. NASA selected Blaha for astronaut training in 1980. He piloted two Space Shuttle missions, and then commanded two more Shuttle missions, both of whose crews included Shannon Lucid.

When asked later whether being a pilot—rather than a mission specialist—helped him during his stay on Mir, Blaha said, "No, I don’t think it made any difference…. All crewmembers are the same, and everybody needs to pitch in and help—kind of like everybody pitches in and helps on a camping trip."

John Blaha launched to Mir on September 16, 1996, aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-79. He officially became a member of the Mir-22 crew, joining Commander Valeri Korzun and Flight Engineer Alexander Kaleri. They had arrived at Mir in August and had been working with NASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid, who, due to her unplanned six-week extension, had begun some of the experiments originally scheduled for Blaha.

"After docking, we spent five days transferring about 4,000 pounds of supplies and science equipment to the Mir," said Blaha, "and about 2,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the Shuttle." Blaha added he was amazed at the incredible skill of the crews as they worked 18-hour days to accomplish all the work.

"Each evening, the STS-79 crew and the Mir crew met for dinner either on Mir or Atlantis. These were unforgettable times," he added. "I will always remember how they all helped me move into my home."

Blaha used a battery powered speaker mike unit to talk to MirWhile the Space Shuttle Atlantis was still docked with Mir, Blaha noticed that the vessel for the Biotechnology Systems Experiment was not rotating. He alerted Mission Control-Houston. Since the Biotechnology Systems Experiment supported living cells, the rotation had to be restored quickly. The time was nearing for closing the hatches, and so was the possibility of having to return the Biotechnology Systems Experiment facility to Atlantis.

Moving quickly, Blaha tried numerous procedures to correct the Biotechnology Systems Experiment, while astronaut Jay Apt took digital photos of the equipment and downloaded them to Johnson Space Center. There, the ground team worked feverishly. They compared the photos to a sister system, troubleshot the problem, and sent up instructions and ideas. Blaha tried them; they did not work.

It was time to close the hatches. The American Shuttle crew and Shannon Lucid bid farewell to the Mir-22 crew. But, Blaha continued working on the Biotechnology Systems Experiment problems and did not join the formal goodbyes so that he could "work with ground crews" while good communications remained intact through Atlantis to Mir. At Johnson Space Center, Allen Moore, Krug Life Science’s lead engineer for the Biotechnology Systems Experiment facility, pored over the photos taken by Apt and discovered a control and data cable had become dislodged. While the Shuttle undocked and began its fly-around of Mir, the Biotechnology Systems Experiment team drew up another "fix." This one would ask Blaha to power down the equipment so the cable could be remated without damaging the system.

In the nick of time, the ground team had arrived at a solution. But, all was not well—yet. These procedures were more complicated. Before they could be passed on to Blaha, they would have to be approved by Mission Control-Moscow. That could take days.

At that moment, communication between Moscow and Mir was suddenly established—again by way of Atlantis. Bill Gerstenmaier, leading the U.S. consultants group in Russia, broke in to announce that the Russian flight director had approved the procedures. Then, Gerstenmaier in Russia and Mission Scientist John Uri in the United States both talked with Blaha directly through the communications relay. After completing the procedure, Blaha called down to report that the cable had been secured and the Biotechnology Systems Experiment vessel was now operating properly.

"It ain’t Apollo 13," quipped John Uri, "but from a scientist’s perspective, we pulled it off and saved that experiment."

 View of the nose of the STS-79 shuttle Atlantis Atlantis pulled away. A few days later, Blaha wrote in an e-mail, "I will always remember the incredible sight as the Atlantis undocked and flew around the Mir. The views of Atlantis silhouetted against the darkness of space, the horizon of the Earth, or zooming over the top of Russia and China will never leave my memory. Wow, what an incredible spaceship America built."

From orbit, Blaha also described his impressions of Mir. "Actually," he said, "I was surprised. There was a lot of empty space. It may be five times the size of the volume of a Space Shuttle. The environment is actually very good. The air is very healthy. It’s not dry. It’s not humid. Nothing smells. Two of the modules are very new inside. The other four modules look a bit used—as you could imagine a house looking after people have lived in it in orbit for 10 or 11 years, without having the advantage of bringing the vehicle home and letting it be cleaned up on the ground."

As his mission began, Blaha got right to work on the revived Biotechnology Systems Experiment, which studied the long-term growth of living mammalian cartilage cells suspended in microgravity. At scheduled times, Blaha sampled the cellular environment for postflight analysis and recorded the progress of the experiment on video. He also used the samples to decide when to replace the medium that kept the cells growing.

Blaha also "fixed" several wheat plants from the Svet greenhouse experiment designed to study the effects of microgravity on plant growth, and he noted that the heads of the plants were maturing. He also took several physical measurements of himself to help researchers study the changes in his muscle mass during his stay on Mir.

His scientific regimen was now well under way. Into October, Blaha concluded work with samples of the binary colloidal alloy tests, which grew crystals of two materials together over time. He collected samples of the microbial environment around Mir, including air, water, spacecraft surfaces, and samples from the Mir crewmembers’ skin. He appreciated Mir’s several excellent windows, which had covers that opened and closed. He studied the geography and the weather on the Earth below. Mir’s high orbital inclination meant that the space station flew over nearly all of the inhabited regions of Earth—and all of its hustle and turmoil.

Blaha’s scientific investigations included monthly photography of samples for the diffusion-controlled crystallization apparatus for microgravity, which slowly grew protein crystals to be compared to samples grown on Earth. All three Mir crewmembers exercised on the U.S. exercise bicycle, while hooked to equipment that measured their breath through a metabolic analyzer. The crew was also quizzed by Russian psychologists who were interested in any changes that might occur in interpersonal relationships during long-duration space missions.

Kaleri & Korzun in cooling garments In an October 25, 1996, press conference, Blaha praised his hardworking shipmates, saying, "Valeri and Sasha [Kaleri]—they’re incredible cosmonauts. We work about a 16-hour day—Sasha and Valeri, for certain. I’m a little older, so after about 14 hours I need to settle down a little bit and look at the stars or the Earth. I watch movies." He would later say that the crew worked so hard on their separate tasks that even his work-time interactions with his crewmates were limited. "Every now and then I would do something with one of the cosmonauts, but not often…. Maybe there were 15, 20 times in that four-and-a-half months. The reason was—we all were too busy. We couldn’t be together. All three of us had to be working on things to accomplish all of the work."

Blaha said that one lifestyle difference he made on the space station was bringing up movies, which allowed him "to settle down in the evening. As a result, I [had] a fantastic night’s sleep." Sleep had been one thing Blaha worried about before his Mir mission. He was eating well and enjoying his exercise on Mir, and "the movies have been helpful. They’re like medicine to me." He added that the movies helped him relax and prepared him for a full seven hours of sleep.

Docked Mir over Earth with stormOne important relationship that would not change for Blaha was the one he had with his wife. During the October 25 news conference, U.S. reporters asked him what he missed most about being away from Earth for such an extended period. He didn’t miss the pull of gravity at all, he said. However, "what I wish I had is my wife, Brenda. I miss her. We have a very good relationship. I miss talking with her and seeing her…. If she were here with me, I’d stay here for four or five years."

On November 1, as Blaha was completing six weeks aboard Mir, he had an interactive videoconference with crewmembers of the STS-81 Space Shuttle crew. They would launch to Mir in January with NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger. The crew used the two-way video as an opportunity for a brief Halloween party, and ground team members donned makeshift costumes to bring reminders of life at home to Blaha in orbit.

The crew’s physical comfort was challenged by a breakdown in the system that recycled the crew’s waste into Mir’s cooling system. Early in November, the Russian news service Itar-Tass reported that waste reserve containers had nearly filled. The next Progress resupply ship would not launch for nearly three weeks. Also announced was that Russia’s financial problems had slowed production of Soyuz booster rockets. This forced the postponement of the launch of the Mir-23 crew from December 15, 1996, to February 1997. Blaha was scheduled to depart Mir in January. He would now be able to serve out his mission with the same shipmates, Korzun and Kaleri.

When Blaha had "free time," he enjoyed talking to ham radio operators around the world, telling them about his Mir experiences and receiving news from them. Blaha had been an avid ham radio user during his previous missions with NASA. Due to his interest, Blaha had worked with NASA to set up ham radio conferences between the Mir crew and various organizations around the world.

Blaha’s scientific investigations continued with the passive accelerometer system, which used a small metal ball inside a tube to measure minute residual gravity at space station altitudes. Blaha also ran another malfunction procedure on the Biotechnology Systems Experiment. This time, the experiment had developed an air bubble in the liquid growth medium and difficulty with the computer-controlled pump. Blaha replaced the growth medium and reset the computer, but problems continued. The experiment had shown increased metabolic activity in the cells, indicating a possible higher growth rate in microgravity.

Kaleri, Blaha, and KorzunGood news came finally when, after three postponements, a Russian Progress resupply spacecraft launched from Baikonur on November 20 and docked with Mir two days later. The Progress brought supplies, including Christmas gifts from Blaha’s family, New Year’s gifts for Korzun and Kaleri, and fresh fruit, clean clothing, and new equipment for all three men. Thanksgiving came, and Blaha watched the beautiful Earth through the Mir windows rather than his usual viewing fare of football. He and his crewmates also worked on that holiday.

The first week of December aboard Mir began with a six-hour spacewalk performed by Korzun and Kaleri. Its main purpose was to complete connections of the cooperative solar array to provide more electrical power to the station. After the spacewalk, however, the crew reported that the ham radio was not working and may even have been damaged during the spacewalk. Further attention would be needed.

Wheat experiment - close up of growth Onboard Mir, Blaha harvested the first crop of healthy plants grown through a complete life cycle in the microgravity of space aboard Mir. The plants were grown in the Svet greenhouse, a small growth chamber originally built in Bulgaria during the late 1980s. Svet had a compact growing area of about one square foot and could accommodate plants up to 16 inches tall. The wheat was grown in a material similar to kitty litter but was loaded with plant nutrients. Fluorescent lamps provided light. Water was injected directly into the growth material and transferred to the wheat seeds by a system of wicks. Blaha, on a daily basis, recorded critical experiment data and transferred the data files to the ground. Several times he made manual changes to water and lighting cycle times. Day length and water injection were normally controlled automatically and adjusted throughout the experiment by project scientists. The next week, Blaha planted a new crop of wheat seeds.

It was also during this next week that the cosmonauts completed a second extravehicular activity to finish work on the solar array. In a video downlinked to Mission Control-Moscow, Blaha described an additional spacewalking activity. "Another thing Valeri and Sasha did on this [extravehicular activity] was they repaired our transceiver system that we use to talk to amateur operators all around the world…. They had quite a bit of equipment they were trying to move, and I was very impressed with all their work. They lived in those suits for nine hours and did a fantastic job." During their 6 1/2 hour spacewalk, Korzun and Kaleri also completed connecting the solar array and installing a new Kurs antenna that would be used to guide Progress vehicles docking with Mir.

Shortly afterward, Blaha used the shortwave radio to receive ham radio conversations over Brazil, and he initiated conversations over Madrid. He later characterized the overall communications situation onboard Mir as "excellent."

Blaha also related his impressions of his crewmates’ spacewalks: "I will forever have images implanted in my brain of Valeri and Sasha—working 18-hour days, preparing for the spacewalks, asking many questions to specialists on Earth, and probing every possible scenario. I will forever remember the incredible views of these two cosmonauts floating in space, silhouetted against the black of space, with planet Earth rotating by us below. I will forever remember the sounds of strain in their breathing when the workload was intense. And, finally, I will never forget the incredible feeling of accomplishment after the job was complete, and everyone was safely inside the Mir Space Station."

On December 20, the Mir-22 crew held a news conference; and naturally several of the questions were about how they would celebrate the upcoming holidays. Blaha for the most part gave his answers straight, while Commander Valeri Korzun injected some humor and perhaps let the cat out of the bag about Christmas dinner: Question: What plans do you have for your holidays in space?

Korzun: Maybe we could go for another spacewalk and get another new Christmas tree for Christmas this year!

Question: What will you miss about Christmas while you are there?

Blaha: As to spending Christmas here and not with the family, I don’t know how that’s going to work yet…. We’ve been busy. I haven’t had time to really think how I’m going to feel on Christmas Day.

Korzun: At a store, we have presents. We will get the presents from the store and give them to each other. John Blaha hasn’t said what we really miss—which is a Christmas pie.

Question: What have you planned for your Christmas dinner?

Korzun: We’re going to have an outstanding menu … both Russian and American products. We will have traditional cakes and other dishes, lamb, pork, and a wonderful dessert, as well as Italian food—macaroni and cheese.

Blaha: In six days, we’re going to have quite a feast! I’m happy. This is the first time I’ve heard about that.

Besides celebrating, Blaha and his crewmates worked on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day as well.

In early January, floods caused widespread damage in the western United States, and bad weather in the eastern U.S. threatened to delay the launch of Atlantis that would bring Jerry Linenger to Mir. Undaunted, John Blaha prepared for his return to Earth, packing 15 bags of gear to be transferred to the Space Shuttle. He continued his work on the Biotechnology Systems Experiment, Svet, and other experiments; and he collected samples of microbe population from the water, air, surfaces, and crew.

Before his departure, Blaha would encounter yet one more challenge. On the evening of January 10, he heard a loud clattering noise in the Spektr module.

An investigation revealed that one of the two cooling fans was broken in the large freezer containing all of the Mir-22 life science research data. There was not a spare fan on Mir. Blaha removed the front door of the freezer and affixed a temporary door to hold the temperature as long as possible. The American astronaut removed the fan blade and reinstalled the primary freezer door with only one fan operating—a configuration only adequate for one week.

The Space Shuttle was scheduled to launch in 36 hours. The mission needed to bring a replacement fan, plus a spare, or the following Mir-23 mission life science research program would be significantly impacted.

Blaha radioed Pat McGinnis, his Flight Surgeon in the Mission Control Center-Moscow, and told him that a ham radio communication had been scheduled for 9 p.m. (noon Houston time) with Blaha’s wife, Brenda. He told the flight doctor to locate Matt Mueller, an engineer in Houston working with NASA, and tell him to be present at the ham radio session. Right on time, Blaha greeted his wife, and after hearing Mueller was present, spent the rest of the six-minute communication explaining the small emergency.

Mueller and Blaha had trained together for four months in Star City on all of the science experiments and equipment slated for his mission. Blaha knew that this vital ground support team member could quickly understand the problem, contact the necessary people, obtain the spare fans, and have them delivered to Florida in time to be loaded on the mid-deck of Atlantis as it was being prepared for its launch to Mir. The plan was executed flawlessly, Blaha said later.

Linenger and Blaha around the table in Mir's Base BlockAtlantis (STS-81) launched on schedule on January 12, 1997. After it had docked, Blaha took special care to brief Jerry Linenger, the newest U.S. resident on Mir. During his own stay on Mir, Blaha had developed a detailed checklist to help him provide as much information as possible during the handover time. He had stressed to NASA the importance of the handover, and he had worked to ensure plenty of time had been scheduled for the two long-duration astronauts to exchange information.

STS-81 lands at KSCWhen Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center 10 days later, Blaha followed some advice he had received from the Russians. He allowed Kennedy Space Center workers to carry him off the Orbiter on a stretcher so that doctors could better study the effects of microgravity on an astronaut’s return to Earth’s gravity. His wife, Brenda, and his daughter greeted him with kisses and hugs.

Read more about John Blaha and NASA-3.

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Blaha Biography

NASA portrait of Astronaut John BlahaJohn Blaha was born in San Antonio, Texas. He earned a Bachelor of Science in engineering science at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Master of Science in astronautical engineering from Purdue University. He has logged more than 7,000 hours of flying time in 34 different aircraft, completing 361 combat missions in Vietnam and piloting the NF-104 research aircraft to 104,400 feet. He earned two Air Force Distinguished Flying Crosses, the British Royal Air Force Cross, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

Blaha was selected as an astronaut in 1980. Before his Mir residency, he piloted two Shuttle missions and commanded two other Shuttle missions, including STS-58 (with Shannon Lucid and David Wolf). This seven-person life science research mission, lasting a record 14 days, was recognized by NASA management as the most successful Spacelab flight that NASA has flown.

About his four months on Mir, Blaha said, "The only thing I missed was my wife. It’s the only thing I missed, and I told people that all the time. If I had the choice, I would go to the Mir to work … if you could beam me up on Monday morning and beam me back on Friday evening. I would go there, and it would be like going to any job that anyone goes to in America. I would do it as a profession forever."

John Blaha retired from NASA in September 1997 to return to his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he now works as a management executive and volunteers with the Challenger Center for Space Education.

Read more about John Blaha and NASA-3.

Read John Blaha's Oral History (PDF)


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Life on Mir

Blaha in Russian sokol suitAstronauts and cosmonauts living onboard Mir had to face isolation, confinement, and physical risk. But, they also got to experience long stays in microgravity, incredible views of Earth, and the adventure of being pioneers.

What was it like up there when things were going "normally"?

At different times, and by different people, Mir was described variously. Perceptions depended on expectations and on comparisons to other spacecraft, such as a Space Shuttle or a Soyuz capsule.

NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha said, "I was surprised. There was a lot of empty space. It may be five times … the volume [of a Space Shuttle]. The environment is actually very good. The air is very healthy. It’s not dry. It’s not humid. Nothing smells. Two of the modules are very new inside."

But, Mir was also very cluttered, mainly because of the limited ways of getting rid of unwanted equipment and supplies. Ten Progress resupply vehicles were loaded with trash during the American residencies, and nine visiting Space Shuttles brought back what they could. Even so, when STS-91 Shuttle Commander Charlie Precourt talked about the last Shuttle visit to Mir, he said that there were "still food supplies there that belonged to Shannon [Lucid] and John Blaha, and there were boxes [of food] with their names on them that nobody’s ever going to eat."

NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale said that it was "very easy to lose each other … It’s not that the Mir is such a big space—it’s because it’s such a cluttered space. You’re basically winding your way through tunnels…. Equipment just isolates you from other parts of the station. So, … there may be food boxes stored, or spacesuits stored, or just trash…. And, you can’t even be seen from the node area on Mir."

Foale said that there were times "when I would suddenly pop out of my warren—you know, out of my hole—and Vasily [Tsibliev] would say, ‘Mike, have you seen Sasha [Lazutkin]? I haven’t seen him all morning.’

"I’d say, ‘No, I haven’t seen him all morning.’

"Well, we knew he had to be on the station. But, we didn’t know where he was. So, you could easily spend a day without talking to crewmembers—and that we considered not a good thing. So, we made an effort to try and tag up, especially for lunch and often just for a 10-minute tea break."

NASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid reported that her crew "ate all our meals together and spent a lot of time talking to each other over mealtimes." Other Shuttle-Mir astronauts, such as John Blaha and NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger, reported working such long hours that days would go by without much interaction with their Russian crewmates.

This work was sometimes grueling physical labor. NASA-6 Mir Astronaut David Wolf related how on his first day on Mir, he offered to clean up liquid that kept condensing on some heat exchangers. According to Wolf, "I didn’t realize what I was getting into, because it took anywhere from four to eight hours a day, the rest of the mission, every single day except a few."

The Mir residents kept themselves clean with sponge baths and shampoo that they could towel out of their hair. The NASA Mir astronauts slept, generally, in Spektr or Priroda—the newer modules. Shannon Lucid said, "I put all my personal things in Spektr. I had a sleeping bag," provided by the Russians. "Then I had one of the white collapsible bags that had all my personal things in there—my books and stuff.

"Then at the end of the day … I would go into Spektr and just unroll the sleeping bag and tie it off. Generally, we had about an hour in the evening to ourselves. That was just real nice. Then I would get in the sleeping bag, go to sleep, and wake up the next morning when the alarm clock went off." Several of the Mir astronauts reported excellent sleep.

Mir residents generally dressed in cotton T-shirts, shorts, and jumpsuits. Supplies of these were limited. Lucid said that during the first two-thirds of her flight, there were enough of the shorts and shirts "so that we could change twice a week—like on Wednesdays and Sundays." She wore her blue jumpsuit "every day for 188 days."

While the rewards of living and working on Mir were great, it was—all in all—tough duty. When David Wolf was about to leave Andy Thomas to his turn onboard the Russian space station, Wolf said in a news conference that his own time onboard Mir "has been an amazing experience. It’s been one of the hardest of my life, and I think Andy can expect the same."


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John Blaha Pens a Letter Home

December 13, 1996

This week we started preparing for the arrival of a Progress resupply vehicle. Two days before the launch we started loading up the old Progress docked to the Kvant module. We put all our dirty clothes, trash, equipment nobody wanted, 600 liters of urine, many containers of solid waste, etc., into the cargo bay.

We started sleep shifting 2 days before the launch, because we planned to undock the old Progress at 2 a.m. and dock the new Progress approximately 26 hours later. We, of course, waited until we knew the new Progress launch was successful and the spaceship was going to have a good chance of docking with us before the old Progress was undocked.

At midnight, Valeri, Sasha, and I worked with engineers on the ground to ensure we had a good seal with the hatch leading to the old Progress. When everyone was convinced we had a good seal, the Moscow Control Center sent commands to automatically undock the old Progress. Valeri installed a special control system near the Base Block control station and was ready to fly the Progress manually, if required.

He had a TV monitor, which displayed the Mir as seen from the Progress.

About 10 minutes after the Progress undocked, we could visually see it at about 100 meters through a large window in the floor of the Base Block. It was beautiful to watch this big beautiful machine with solar panels—they looked like airplane wings—pull away and finally disappear.

Twenty-four hours later we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new Progress. I was in the Kvant-2 module looking through one of the small windows. I finally saw the Progress at a distance of 30 kilometers.

It was a shining star rising towards us at great speed from beneath the horizon. This was an incredible sight. There we were approaching the terminator on planet Earth, and this "beaming" shining star was roaring towards us. Then all of a sudden, the light from the Progress extinguished as we passed into the shade of the Earth. Five seconds later, four lights on the Progress were turned on.

I watched the remainder of the rendezvous through a tiny window in the aft end of the Kvant module, right at the point where the docking would occur. Again, Valeri was monitoring the event with his backup control system in the Base Block of Mir.

The docking felt quite firm. Five times stronger than I remembered the Shuttle docking with Mir felt over two months ago. The Progress rendezvous approached from behind, passed the Mir radius vector, then performed an approach on the velocity vector.

We verified we had a good seal before opening the hatch at about 5:30 a.m. We were supposed to go to sleep at 6 a.m. Of course, we stayed up a few extra minutes as we searched for our crew packages.

Once we found our packages, it was like Christmas and your birthday all rolled together when you were five years old. We really had a lot of fun reading mail, laughing, opening presents, eating fresh tomatoes, cheese, etc. It was an experience I will always remember.

The Progress brought us a lot of food, fresh water, fuel for the reaction control jets, oxygen, spare parts needed to repair systems, equipment for a spacewalk, science equipment, towels, and clothes.

I thought you may be interested in reading about what it was like to have a Progress arrive at Mir. This type of event will occur many times on the International Space Station.


Read other letters written from Mir


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Ham Radio on Mir

When a handheld amateur radio was first sent up to the Mir Space Station in 1988, ham radio became a popular and an important activity for Mir’s space-bound crews.

It provided a somewhat unofficial and often informal way to communicate with families, friends, students, and other ham operators. Amateur radio also functioned as a backup communications link between Mir and ground controllers, and it was highly appreciated by several of NASA’s Mir astronauts. Not all of the Mir astronauts held amateur radio licenses, but they could use Mir’s radio because the station qualified as an amateur radio "club" according to Russian amateur radio regulations.

The worldwide Mir Amateur Radio Experiment was formed to handle communications with radio amateurs around the world. The Mir International Amateur Radio Experiment coordinated activities with schools and students.

A similar Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment continues to operate onboard Space Shuttle missions, and an amateur radio system is expected to be an important part of crew life onboard the International Space Station.


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Life in Microgravity

Ivins floating on the Atlantis's aft flight deckGravity exists everywhere, but it is not felt in an orbiting spacecraft where the sensation is more like that felt by someone in an aircraft during a "free fall." Indeed, an orbiting spacecraft is, in effect, falling around the Earth, with its occupants falling at the same speed inside it.

People and objects in the spacecraft appear to be floating, yet they still possess the same mass that they did on Earth. The situation can be compared to that of a boat floating next to a dock; a person can easily move the boat while still feeling its inertia or "heft." In space, transferring heavy batteries between modules can still take hard work. A Progress supply ship can strike the Spektr module and cause crippling damage.

Living and working in microgravity presents pleasures and problems. One astronaut compared it to "flying in your dreams." She said, "You’re floating. You can flail your arms. But, you don’t go anywhere."

Many astronauts develop short-term "space sickness." Also, tools can float away, and simple activities—such as eating—require special techniques. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to microgravity causes changes in the human body, including bone loss and muscle atrophy as well as changes in blood and fluids circulation. These can partly be countered by strenuous exercising while in orbit.

Space adaptation sickness is only partly understood. It is a kind of motion sickness, and different people experience it differently. Two of the Shuttle-Mir astronauts, both medical doctors, related their own observations about overcoming it.

NASA-1 Mir Astronaut Norm Thagard had an interesting comment, resulting from his launch to Mir onboard a Soyuz spacecraft. He noted that the Russians had claimed that space motion sickness was not a problem for them. "And yet," according to Thagard, "what I found out on the Soyuz is there is a reason why they do better: You cannot move around. There’s not that big volume on the Soyuz…. You just don’t move around, and you certainly don’t have as many head movements" during the two days it takes Soyuz to travel to Mir.

Thagard pointed out that, after a Space Shuttle launch, "you start moving your head," immediately after orbit is attained. Astronauts start unlocking lockers and getting out equipment. "You basically hit the deck running," said Thagard. "You’ve got so much to do and so little time in which to do it that, immediately upon clearance [and] a 'go' for orbit, you’re up—just darting—and throwing big head movements….

"There is absolutely no question that that’s what causes and exacerbates space motion sickness," according to Thagard. Because he couldn’t move around much onboard Soyuz, he "really never got beyond stomach awareness."

Linenger takes care of personal hygiene in the Spektr moduleNASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger had a similar observation. He described the arrival at the space station of the Mir-23 crew. Linenger wrote, "It was obvious that they were all relieved and glad to get out of their capsule; but it was also obvious that the voluminous Mir nauseated them. The freedom of motion came at a price—space motion sickness. While everyone was able to smile during the press conference, the newcomers were glad when the cameras were turned off and they could remain still and feel miserable alone."

Andy Thomas moving through Kristall airlockAlmost every astronaut adapts to microgravity, and all of the Mir astronauts did very well on their Mir flights. NASA-7 Mir Astronaut Andy Thomas said, "One of the things that surprised me was how quickly I could adapt to that environment. Now, true, it was my second flight, [but] I was surprised, because on this flight I adapted to being at zero-gravity psychologically very quickly, and I very quickly learned to function and to accept that environment as the normal environment, and it felt natural."

Thomas elaborated. "That was what was so strange—[that] an environment which is fundamentally so unnatural could so quickly feel natural." He added that "you become more blasé about it because you have it all the time. And, every now and again you have these little reality checks…. ‘Wait a minute. I’m weightless. I can float. That’s the way I move.’ And, you just have to remind yourself that—yes—you are weightless.

"Of course," Thomas said, "another form of reality check was when you would go and look out the window and have this spectacular view, just to remind you of where you really were."

Once the basic feeling of microgravity is adapted to, astronauts must adjust to working and living with it. In one of his "Letters to My Son," Jerry Linenger wrote: "Everything floats up here. And, I do mean everything. Propulsion and suction are the keys to daily tasks of living. For example, you can brush your teeth pretty well, as long as you keep your mouth closed. Open your mouth and breathe out just a bit: and you have foam floating away. I keep a small two-by-two gauze pad nearby, and I carefully capture the stuff in it. Then, to a plastic ziplock, and remember to seal.

Krikalev and Davis try to catch and eat pieces of candy "I can gulp peanuts like a fish would: they float, I open my mouth and pull ’em in! … I guess that God made us all-purpose beings because, once the food goes down the pipe, it stays down. Peristalsis: who would have thought of it.

Kondakova and clervoy demonstrate the sleep restraints in the SpacehabSleeping in microgravity is like many people assume it would be—like sleeping on a cloud. Mir astronauts used sleeping bags that were secured so that they wouldn’t float off.

Bathing on any spacecraft has always been problematic. Microgravity allows water to "glob up" and drift everywhere. Norm Thagard said that on Mir, "They give you one wet towel. And, these are just cloth towels in plastic wrapping that have some sort of antibacterial solution in it. I’d get one of the wetted towels a day and two dry towels a day. And, that works fine. If you need more, you can always just wet one of the dry towels, or put more water on the wet towel.… It worked fine for cleaning up after exercise."

Exercise on Mir had to be done against mechanical resistance; for example, by stretching cords or by running on a treadmill. In one of his "Letters to My Son," Linenger discussed some peripheral effects of treadmill running in an orbiting spacecraft. He wrote: "Sasha [Lazutkin] is running on the treadmill, medium pace…. It’s definitely Sasha, and he’s on the treadmill in module Kristall, and not on the treadmill in the Base Block module. I know who it is—and what he’s doing—not by sight or sound, but by feel. I can feel him. Frequency, about 1 hertz."

Linenger was working on a computer at the time. He said, "The computer and I are going up and down right now. Feels similar to being in a rowboat, near the shore, after a ski boat has gone by. Gentle, but definite swaying. The whole 13-meter ‘tube’ I’m in is moving. The force Sasha imparts is absorbed by the station, and it sways, resonates. If he slows down or speeds up a bit, I’ll feel nothing. A peaceful float. When Shannon Lucid was onboard, she had to stop running at a given pace because the station would resonate at a dangerous level."

Free-floating water bubble in the SpacehabAn astronaut’s visual perception is also affected in microgravity. Andy Thomas wrote in a letter from Mir: "The most frustrating thing is that you are forever losing things. You might be rummaging through a bag to find one item, while all the other contents are floating away, and before you know it, they are gone, and lost. They may even be close by to you, but as you look around you tend to focus your gaze only on surfaces, where we are accustomed to seeing things." NASA-6 Mir Astronaut David Wolf wrote, "we just don't expect the pliers to be pointing straight at us, at eye level, one foot in front of our face."

Microgravity also affects the systems and structures within the human body. During Shuttle-Mir, Dr. Sam Pool was Assistant Director of Space Medicine at Johnson Space Center. According to Dr. Pool, "Flying in space, particularly in microgravity for long periods of time, is not very friendly to the human body." Many body functions degrade, and even countermeasures, such as exercise, have not solved the problem. Dr. Pool said, "The cardiovascular system becomes less responsive, particularly on return to gravitational field. Bone mineral is lost. Neurophysiology is definitely affected. The Russians say—and I think they’re quite correct—that returning cosmonauts from long missions can’t play simple games that children play because their coordination and so on is not up to it. That’s certainly been proven true now that we’ve begun to fly with them."

Several of the Shuttle-Mir science investigations studied the effects of microgravity.

Read more information on the Science of Shuttle-Mir


| Pulling It Together | Blaha Bio | Life on Mir | Letter | Ham Radio | Microgravity | Meanwhile |

Meanwhile on Earth - Flight Docs

Strekalov practices an emergency medical procedureDuring John Blaha’s increment onboard Mir, NASA’s operations in Russia likewise experienced its first "handover" of responsibilities, from one Operations Lead to the next. Operations Lead Isaac "Cassi" Moore took over from Bill Gerstenmaier. Gerstenmaier had been so immersed in so many aspects of Shannon Lucid’s flight that a good way to pass on all the knowledge was difficult to develop. By the end of Blaha’s flight, the NASA operations team in Russia had expanded by several members, and the situation of a nearly "one-man show" was a thing of the past.

See Operations Leads and Russian Interface Officers

Cassi Moore was to learn more than just Mission Control-Moscow’s way of doing operations. He also was to learn how the Russian flight controllers might spend a light moment. One day Moore was in the control center, where the Russians would often play music on one of the communications channels or "loops." On this occasion, Moore could not see over his own console, but he began to hear the song "La Macarena" playing. As he later told it, "Then I realize that what I’m hearing is not coming from the voice loop … and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here. It’s a little bit like the Twilight Zone. I look around, and I look over the console, and most of controllers in the room are doing the Macarena. And, it was all I could do not to fall out of my chair—because they were singing the Macarena and doing the Macarena in the control room for Mir. Now, I was trying to imagine that over here, in the control center in Houston, and I can’t. That’s just not a vision that I can do. But, here are these people working, … the Macarena is played, and so they’re going along with it, sitting on console…. And, tried not to make an international incident by falling out of my chair."

Operations Lead Christine Chiodo arrived in Russia toward the end of John Blaha’s increment to begin one of her lengthy stays in Star City. She later told the story of one Christmas she spent in Russia, when the Americans made a similarly odd impression on their Russian controller colleagues. "We had the room decorated in lights," Chiodo said. "Somebody brought in Santa hats, and we’re giving out candy canes to the Russian ground team. They were looking at us like we were nuts."

These stories detail how Shuttle-Mir participants gave each other psychological support, both on orbit and on the ground. For another example, it was around 6 a.m., Houston time, when Shuttle-Mir Program Manager Frank Culbertson called the Moscow control room. Chiodo said to him something like "Jeez, you better get to bed. I’m sure your kids are going to be up early."

Culbertson replied, "Oh, I’m still wrapping gifts."

"It makes you feel like you’re not so far away," Chiodo said later. "Phase 1 management was fantastic in supporting us. Every morning—usually anywhere between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., Houston time—we knew the phone was going to ring. It was either going to be Frank Culbertson or Jim Van Laak."

The Flight Docs

They couldn’t make house calls to the space station Mir but they did almost everything else, including watching over the Mir astronauts’ health, training, studies, communication, and stress levels. The Shuttle-Mir "flight docs" were all-purpose physicians.

Since the Mercury Program, medical doctors have been very involved in NASA’s human spaceflight efforts. These Flight Surgeons take part in astronaut selection and training, in astronaut physical health care and psychological support, and in monitoring the environment onboard spacecraft.

During Shuttle-Mir, NASA Flight Surgeons expanded their roles. Besides overseeing the astronauts’ health and the life support situation onboard Mir, they traveled to Russia to assist the astronauts during training and served as important communicators and facilitators during their Mir residencies. As their duties expanded, they often spoke directly to the U.S. astronaut onboard Mir. This differs from the situation of a Space Shuttle flight, where only the Capsule Communicator generally speaks to the flight crew. In Star City, the Flight Surgeons also served as occupational safety and general medical officers, and they provided medical care for NASA’s people when needed. NASA-6 Mir Astronaut David Wolf talked about how important the Flight Surgeons were and praised Dr. Chris Flynn, his mission’s Flight Surgeon.

"The Flight Surgeons take on a new importance in a mission like this. They do more than what would traditionally be considered Flight Surgeon work. They are your alter ego. They’re yourself on the ground, and they know the people you need to talk with and communicate with." He added that the Flight Surgeons were the Mir astronauts’ "gateways" for all sorts of information and communication.

To accomplish this with the flight doctor, Wolf said it "takes a long relationship before the mission. He has to know you and your family, and you have to know him, and he’s under a similar stress as you are on these long-duration missions."

Dr. Roger Billica was Medical Operations Working Group Leader during Shuttle-Mir. Billica said, "[It] made it so that the crewmember knew this doctor, and was comfortable with him and willing to really work with him when there were problems. It wasn’t some strange voice or strange person [they heard]; it was their Flight Surgeon.

I think that helped a lot when things came up, when the crewmember had questions or concerns, for them to feel comfortable, secure, confident that we were going to be able to deal with whatever the situation was."

The Flight Surgeons encountered differences between the American and Russian ways of practicing flight medicine. Johnson Space Center’s Assistant Director of Space Medicine during Shuttle-Mir, Dr. Sam Pool, said that, generally, "the American system … follows the military model in that we provide health care" before, during, and after spaceflights. "We also organize emergency medical services that may be required. We provide medical certifications for selection as an astronaut and for each space mission to which [an astronaut is] assigned."

The Russians, according to Dr. Pool, have developed separate and almost autonomous systems for each phase of flight. Some physicians are involved in training the cosmonauts and preparing them for a mission, and a different group of physicians is responsible during the mission. At the time of recovery of a Soyuz spacecraft, representatives of both groups are frequently at the landing site to assist. "We found," Dr. Pool said about working with the Russians, "that they didn’t have a single physician—a Flight Surgeon—who had worked the entire process, from preflight training to in-flight operations to postflight rehabilitation. They didn’t have anyone who had that sort of experience because their efforts were more focused and limited. So, that is a fairly big difference in the two systems."

Differences also existed in the ways the American and Russian space programs certified people for training and spaceflight. Flight Surgeon Dr. Mike Barratt said, "We often had disagreements about whose standards should be applied to, for instance, a U.S. astronaut training in the Russian program. Each program had a very large experience base but a very different philosophy. In particular, the Russian philosophy was more towards functional loading—put a crewmember under a certain situation of low pressure, high temperature, sleep deprivation, centrifuge training, whatever, and see how they respond physiologically." NASA’s philosophy was to look more at health factors instead of fitness. "We would differ quite a bit on what test result would declare a person healthy or certified for training or spaceflight," Barratt said.

Being a Flight Surgeon for a long-duration mission was also different from serving as a Flight Surgeon for a Space Shuttle mission. It hadn’t been done since Skylab in 1973, and there was no specific training for it other than Russian language training. "A lot of it is an attitude and an approach," said Flight Surgeon Dr. Tom Marshburn, "as opposed to really step-by-step things. Perhaps you might have to have worked a long-duration mission to feel things as deeply as we do, about how much you have to stay on top of the crew schedule, and how important it is to make sure that the crew stays healthy. It’s something we have to be proactive [about] to make sure [it] happens. And, if we’re not [proactive], it may slip through the cracks."

The Flight Surgeon’s role didn’t end when the Mir astronauts landed. Dr. Chris Flynn described what came after David Wolf’s flight. "[He] had a lot of medical experiments that he was participating in; and, really, for the next 60 days after landing, he was very busy. I kind of became his chauffeur, and so I’d go pick him up in the morning…. We were typically 15 minutes late getting to wherever we were supposed to go. But, I’d get to his place early enough so that we’d sort of take time for him to recuperate" from just getting up and getting going in the morning. "Returning to gravity is a tough thing. He was still physically getting used to being back home."

Dr. Flynn would help Wolf emotionally while they drove in to work. "We’d stop and get doughnuts. Get a cup of coffee. And, we’d just kind of sit in the car for a few minutes, thinking about the day and what we’d accomplished the day before." Thinking later about the roles and responsibilities of a Flight Surgeon, Dr. Flynn said, "That’s a privilege that is kind of the best part of this job—when you have a crewmember who will allow you to be close to him and to really do your job well."

Norm Thagard’s Flight Surgeons were Dr. Mike Barratt and Dr. Dave Ward. Shannon Lucid was attended to by Dr. Gaylen Johnson. Dr. Pat McGinnis served as physician for both John Blaha and Andy Thomas.

Dr. Tom Marshburn worked with Jerry Linenger. Dr. Terry Taddeo attended to Mike Foale. And, Dr. Chris Flynn was David Wolf’s Flight Surgeon.

Interestingly, three of the U.S. Mir astronauts were also medical doctors: Norm Thagard, Jerry Linenger, and David Wolf. Shuttle-Mir’s medical support program is discussed in depth in the Phase 1 Program Joint Report.

Read the Phase 1 Program Joint Report

Next Chapter - STS-81: Bringing Back the Harvest!