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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
Before his departure, Blaha would encounter yet one more challenge.
On the evening of January 10, he heard a loud clattering noise in the
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
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.
(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.
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.
more about John Blaha and NASA-3.