the last American to live onboard Mir, Andy Thomas benefited from the
maturing U.S.-Russian partnership. The Mir space station was now safer,
more versatile, and more robust. Communications had improved both between
ground and orbit, and between the two space programs. Yet at the same
time, life on the outpost still posed many risks. Mir was aging, sailing
past its planned lifespan into a time when things could be expected
to break down with some regularity. Further, there remained the human
challenges with languages, cultures, and politics.
But, Thomas had his own strengths and the experiences of his six NASA
predecessors. He knew, better than they had known, just what to expect.
He went to Mir to conduct an intense science program and to make the
most of his 140 days in orbit. He succeeded. And, when STS-91 came to
fetch him home, the Shuttle-Mir Program came to a successful end.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, Andrew S. W. Thomas had exploration in
his blood. More than a century before his service on Mir, his great-great-grandfather
had served on the first expedition to cross Australia from south to
north. Born in Adelaide, Australia, in 1951, Thomas received a bachelor’s
degree in mechanical engineering and a doctorate in mechanical engineering,
both from the University of Adelaide. He began his professional career
as a research scientist with the Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company,
researching fluid dynamic instabilities and aircraft drag. He became
the head of the Flight Sciences Department and managed a research laboratory
and wind tunnel facility.
In 1987, Thomas was named manager of Lockheed’s Flight Sciences Division.
He joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1989 and soon was appointed
leader of their program for microgravity materials processing. NASA
selected Thomas for astronaut training in 1992. In May 1996, he flew
on Endeavour (STS-77) as Payload Commander during the time that
NASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid was entering her third month onboard
On STS-77, Thomas carried with him an old steel flint, a memento of
his great-great-grandfather’s explorations in the Australian Outback.
But, for all the adventure of his Space Shuttle and space station flights,
Thomas said later that he didn’t see himself "in the same league"
with people such as Lewis and Clark or other early explorers, such as
his great-great-grandfather. He allowed that the early explorers had
"planned everything, and had a lot of support." However, "Once
they’d gone, they were gone. They were alone." Thomas said, "When
we do these flights, it’s true we’re alone up there. But, we have radio
communications to a huge group of people [on Earth] who have a lot of
resources to provide assistance in the event something goes wrong and
a lot of guidance about what should be done next. So, in that sense
we’re not alone."
Thomas launched to Mir on STS-89 on January 22, 1998, the experience
was already a different one for him. On his first Shuttle mission, he
had sat on the flight deck with its many windows and its view of a receding
Earth. For STS-89, Thomas sat on the mid-deck without a view. However,
according to Thomas, "Not having an outside view lets your imagination
provide the imagery, and this can give you an emotional rush, possibly
even more than seeing."
In the first of his "Letters from the Outpost," Thomas related
his liftoff to Mir. "The weather had been questionable that day
and there was still some uncertainty as to whether or not we would actually
go. But … the Control Center then called us to start the auxiliary power
units that provide the steering hydraulics, and we could hear the units
spinning up to speed, deep below us. Then came the call to close and
lock our visors, and to initiate our oxygen flow—a protection in the
event of a depressurization during the climb-out…. It was clearly getting
serious as we waited those long last few minutes and seconds until liftoff.
The three of us on the mid-deck shook hands together and wished ourselves
well for the flight. Then the cabin became quiet.
six seconds before launch, a deep rumble started, shuddering the Orbiter
as its three engines were ignited and run up to full speed. We heard
Pilot Joe Edwards call out, ‘Three at 104,’ signifying all three were
running at rated power. But we were still firmly bolted to the ground
with eight very large explosive bolts, so the engine thrust made us
lurch over, giving us the eerie sense of falling forward. Suddenly,
with the six seconds counted away, there was a thundering roar with
massive vibration … as the solid rockets ignited, the hold-down bolts
exploded, and we were driven off the launch pad and upwards into the
sky. You did not need a window to know what was happening."
Endeavour rendezvoused with Mir, Thomas caught his first glimpse
of his new home. "We could see the station out the overhead windows—first
as a point of light off in the distance that slowly grew brighter as
we approached. Soon the characteristic shape of Mir could be made out,
with its cruciform layout of modules and their protruding solar arrays.
These panels are very winglike in their shape, and indeed Mir has often
been likened to a giant insect in its appearance. We slowly approached
Mir from below toward the Kristall module that carries the docking fixture."
After docking and the opening of the hatches, Thomas wrote, "My
first views of the station were a little daunting. And it was very confining
as we floated down the Kristall module to the Base Block. There was
a lot of equipment stowed on all the panels and in every available location.
But it did open out at the Base Block, which is more spacious by comparison."
He later said, "It was a bit of a shock just how crowded it was
and how much stuff was in there. And that took some getting used to.
But you can get used to it…. At no time did I feel claustrophobic up
there…. There’s enough room that you don’t feel claustrophobic, but
you are aware that it’s a confined environment—that you don’t have a
lot of options of places to go."
Thomas was now safely onboard Mir, a potential showstopper occurred
on the second day of docked operations. Before he could officially become
a Mir-24 crewmember, joining Commander Anatoly Solovyev and Flight Engineer
Pavel Vinogradov, Thomas’ custom-made seat-liner had to be installed
in the Soyuz escape capsule and his Russian Sokol pressure suit had
to be checked for fit. Surprisingly, Thomas and Commander Solovyev were
unable to get Thomas into his suit. Microgravity had allowed Thomas’
spine to expand; he was now too tall for the suit. Two days of discussions
on the ground and some re-tailoring of the suit by Solovyev took place
before the Shuttle-Mir managers, and Thomas himself, became satisfied
that all was safe to proceed.
After four days docked to Mir, Endeavour readied for its return
to Earth. For Thomas, "This was a moment of mixed emotions…. On
the one hand, I was sorry to see my colleagues leave; but on the other
[hand], it meant that I was now able to get on with the mission."
The Space Shuttle was a breathtaking sight as it pulled away and flew
around the station. In sunlight, Endeavour shone brilliant white.
In Earth-shadow, plumes of flame from the maneuvering jets lit up the
solar arrays of the station.
Thomas made his home in the Priroda module. He set up a computer with
access to the informational and recreational CDs that NASA had provided.
He found the bag containing his books, music recordings, stationery
and art supplies, and personal hygiene items.
He wanted to dive deeply into his scientific experiments. But, on January
31, only two days after the Shuttle departed, a Soyuz capsule arrived
with his future crewmates: Mir-25 Commander Talgat Musabayev and Flight
Engineer Nikolai Budarin. Accompanying the two cosmonauts was French
researcher Leopold Eyharts, who would stay for the three weeks of handover
and then return to Earth with the Mir-24 crew.
Thomas watched their approaching capsule. "Their Soyuz appeared
over the horizon, first as a small point of light that slowly grew to
its identifiable shape with its attached habitation module and protruding
solar panels." He and his Mir-24 crewmates watched the final approach
on a video monitor, and they felt a slight bump as the Soyuz docked
to the station. After checking the integrity of all the seals between
the vehicles, they opened the hatch and welcomed the new crew aboard.
Thomas later wrote, "It was strange to see them all again here
in orbit," because he had not seen them since he left Star City
for Houston early in the previous December.
This mission was Musabayev’s second Soyuz flight to Mir. Budarin had
flown to Mir with his Mir-19 crewmate, the same Anatoly Solovyev he
was now meeting again in space. That was onboard STS-71 in 1995, when
Atlantis performed the first Shuttle-Mir docking and brought
U.S. Mir astronaut Norm Thagard and his Russian crewmates back to Earth.
While the six crewmembers were onboard, Mir showed its erratic side
when a software glitch in an onboard computer placed the station into
free drift. This time, however, Mir’s motion control computer never
shut down, and Mir’s briefly unpowered gyrodynes continued to spin while
the crew corrected the problem. In other systems activities, the cosmonauts
worked on one of Mir’s 11 operational gyrodynes, replacing some electronics
with spare parts brought up on STS-89.
Having two crews onboard Mir for three weeks limited workspace and
stowage space. Thomas would later say that this was the hardest part
of his stay on Mir, "when we had a lot of people aboard and it
was very crowded." Spirits were high, however, and a Dutch observer,
who recorded Mir radio traffic, reported, "The mood among the four
cosmonauts, one astronaut, and one spationaute is excellent. There is
a lot of joy and they do not complain about their modest housing."
The two cosmonauts and the French spationaute departed Mir in their
Soyuz capsule, and they made a safe landing in Kazakhstan during a blizzard.
Thomas later said from orbit that, after the Mir-24 crew left, "it
then became a lot easier—getting into the work routine, the recreation
routine. I became very comfortable onboard the station, and at no point
did I feel like I needed to leave. It became a very sort of comfortable,
easy lifestyle in some ways."
Thomas began his complement of science activities, which would focus
on 27 studies in the areas of advanced technology, Earth sciences, human
life sciences, microgravity research, and International Space Station
risk mitigation. His investigations would conclude some experiments
started on the six previous U.S.-Mir missions, as well as begin some
new research. One of the first experiments he activated was an X-ray
detector device, designed to gather information on the background cosmic
radiation aboard the station. He started several experiments, including
the astroculture unit, which provided a controlled environment chamber
to support plant growth in space. He spent much time ensuring that the
Biotechnology System Co-culture Experiment was rotating as expected
and that the proper doses of media and nutrients were reaching the reactor
chamber. And, he soon began collecting urine samples to support the
Renal Stone Risk Assessment Experiment, which studied the risk of kidney
stone formation due to a sudden absorption of calcium by the body during
During this time, among their other duties, Thomas’ crewmates replaced
some hardware systems on the station, including two different water
reclamation systems—one that recycled water from urine, and one that
recycled water condensed out of Mir’s atmosphere.
In a media interview in early February 1998, Thomas spoke about his
life on Mir. There had been questions in the press about his Russian
language abilities, especially pertaining to social conversations. Thomas
agreed on the importance of socializing, "because we spend a lot
of time together in a confined space, not just working as professionals
but around the dinner table." Talking about things in general and
"sharing experiences of the day" were important. Thomas said,
"I’ve been talking with Talgat a lot, and we’ve been working together
in the Priroda module. We’re having a good time together. We joke and
kid around. I’m sort of cueing him on English, and he’s cueing me on
Russian…. We’re telling a lot of war stories together and talking a
lot about music and things, and having a good time." His conversational
Russian would continue to improve.
also said that the Russian space station was "proving to be a very
interesting place to live and work [in]…. If you want to have fun, zero
gravity is a great place to do it. But, I would have to admit that if
you want to do very careful, detailed work, zero gravity is tough because
you’d be amazed how easily you lose things. You take something and you
just let it go for a minute, and you turn your back and you come back
and it’s gone somewhere. You won’t find it again. I’ve had a terrible
time just losing things, putting things down and forgetting about them,
and they come loose and go flying off somewhere. Tools and personal
equipment. Your toothbrush. Your comb. Those are big adjustments in
the lifestyle that you have to make when you’re in this kind of environment."
confirmed what the previous NASA Mir astronauts had said—that life on
Mir was difficult in several ways. "It’s hard because you’re isolated.
I mean, I have a very stimulating workday every day, with a lot of challenging
activities. Of course, the view is always there, and it’s an amazing
view. But, each day tends to roll into the next and there comes a certain
monotony. You have to use your own resources to make the life interesting,
to keep your motivation going. It’s undeniably a challenge because you’re
in a confined space. It’s crowded, and you have some difficult objectives.
So, there are great challenges of taking on a mission like this. There’s
no doubt about it."
For Thomas, the biggest issue on Mir was the shortage of stowage space.
"We’re always fighting this problem of storage, of where to put
things in order to do work." Still, his biggest surprise was how
quickly he had physically adapted to living in microgravity. To Thomas,
weightlessness felt like a "perfectly natural thing."
On February 20, the Mir crew celebrated the 12th anniversary of the
launch of the Mir’s Base Block, as well as 700 days of continuous American
presence in space. In 1986, the Base Block, perched atop a Russian Proton
rocket, had launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin
what was planned to be five years in Earth orbit. Now, in 1998, the
Mir space station was composed of eight permanent modules. All but the
punctured Spektr were habitable.
Also on February 20, the crew boarded the Soyuz capsule and backed
away from Mir to free the Kvant-1 port for the redocking of the Progress
capsule, which had been filled with trash and placed in a parking orbit
on January 30. Instead of doing a fly-around as other crews had done,
they held steady while ground controllers rotated Mir. Talgat Musabayev
then manually flew the Soyuz back to a smooth docking at the transfer
node recently vacated by the previous crew’s Soyuz. Back onboard Mir,
the crew worked on life support systems, mainly atmospheric systems,
such as oxygen generators, a carbon dioxide scrubber, and a pressure
valve. On February 23, the Progress vehicle was redocked, mainly using
the Kurs automated system but testing the manual tele-operated remote
unit docking system that had posed serious problems to recent expeditions.
When the crew reopened the re-docked Progress, a bad smell issued through
the hatch—probably some overripe garbage.
Three days later, the crew got a much worse surprise. Smoke started
issuing from a device that removed contaminants from the air in the
Kvant-1 module. Thomas was exercising on the treadmill in Kristall at
the time. When he finished, he floated past the Base Block and was alarmed
to see thick smoke drifting throughout the cabin. Evidently, switches
on the device had been misconfigured. It had overheated, causing a fire
within the unit, and fumes were being blown into the cabin. When Commander
Musabayev finally noticed the smoke, he quickly turned off the apparatus.
Fortunately, this contained the fire within the unit. The fire was allowed
to burn itself out, and extinguishers were not needed. Regardless, the
cloud of smoke soon spread throughout the entire space station, and
smoke and odor could be noticed in all the modules. Of further concern
was the fact that the fire alarm system had failed to generate an alarm
despite the obvious and thick smoke.
Over subsequent days, the air cleaners slowly removed the fumes; but
the crew continued to feel their effects for some time. The crew took
contamination readings and reported them to the ground, but these were
thought to be unrealistically high and were attributed to instrument
errors. However, analysis of air samples that were later returned to
the ground showed that the readings were, in fact, accurate. Carbon
monoxide levels had reached 20 times the recommended safety levels,
and had remained very high for a couple of days. Fire had again produced
one of spaceflight’s foremost perils—poisoned air in a small, confined
March 4, Talgat Musabayev and Nikolai Budarin attempted the first of
five scheduled spacewalks of the Mir-25 expedition. Their plan was to
brace the Spektr module’s damaged solar array. However, the cosmonauts
could not open all of the 10 latches on the airlock hatch. The last
latch was so stuck that Budarin broke or bent three of the wrenches
available in the airlock trying to release it. Ground controllers called
off the EVA and rescheduled it for later in the mission after the next
Progress resupply vehicle could deliver new equipment.
During the extravehicular activity attempt, Thomas maintained voice
contact with the Mission Control Center-Moscow. The Dutch radio listener
on the ground reported, "He did this in reasonable and certainly
comprehensible Russian." Both Musabayev and Thomas had earlier
told reporters that their spoken communications had greatly improved.
(Besides Russian and English, they could also use German. The Dutch
listener complimented Thomas’ "excellent German" and reported
that "it was clear that Musabayev had picked up a lot of the German
language from the community of former Volga-Germans in his native country"
The cosmonauts began work to replace Mir’s air conditioner, which had
not been working since the last month of NASA-6 Mir Astronaut David
Wolf’s increment. Although Wolf had made the comment that he liked the
heat because it "gave him more energy," temperatures in the
Base Block had been in the 90s. The crew also had to rely on the dehumidifier
on the Soyuz capsule and the Vozdukh carbon dioxide removal system to
In science activities, Thomas continued to work with the Biotechnology
System Co-culture Experiment. He was having trouble with air bubbles
forming in the facility’s rotating chamber. Researchers on the ground
instructed him to reduce the rate at which media and nutrients rotated
around the reactor chamber.
48 days onboard Mir under his belt, Thomas was asked in a television
interview how he was dealing with the isolation and confinement. He
said, "You need to be able to psychologically remove yourself from
it. And, for that you use recreational aids, much like you would on
Earth actually. We have music, CDs, and tapes. I’ve got a good repertoire
of movies on videotape that I can play. I brought some paperback books
to read. So, these are the kinds of things that I use in order to just
relax and unwind and relieve tension and get away from things."
Recreational aids may have been available, but at this point in the
mission there was little time for relaxation. Musabayev reported to
ground controllers that the work burden was too high and procedures
often took longer than the time scheduled for them. Thomas was having
problems doing all of his scientific work while fitting in the physical
exercise necessary to counter the effects of microgravity.
On March 15, the older Progress separated from Mir. The vehicle burned
up in the Earth’s atmosphere, east of New Zealand, over the Pacific
Ocean. A new Progress resupply spacecraft arrived on March 25; but in
the last moments of approach to Mir, its alignment wasn’t perfect. Commander
Musabayev switched over to the manual tele-operated remote unit docking
system for the last 20 meters and docked it to Mir. In an interview
later, Thomas called the docking, "seamless, a beautiful piece
of work…. We felt a slight nudge and a shudder in the station as the
docking took place and as the systems latched together. It was all very
benign, really, and went very well; and the commander executed the work
This time, when the crew opened the hatch, they were greeted with a
clean aroma of fresh apples. Other welcome items onboard the Progress
included letters from home, a computerized photo album for Thomas, new
latches for the airlock hatch, new tools, fresh food, a CD player, and
three 2-volume sets of Beatles music. On March 22, Thomas’ 60th day
in orbit, the Mir crew and the Shuttle-Mir Program marked two years
of a continuous American presence on Mir.
and Budarin began preparing for a series of what would be five extravehicular
activities in the month of April. Thomas worked at his science investigations,
including an immunity experiment for which he periodically took blood
and saliva samples. This investigation compared the human body’s ability
to produce antibodies in microgravity with its ability to produce antibodies
on Earth. Thomas also processed samples for the material science experiment
called the Queen’s University Experiment in Liquid Diffusion (QUELD).
This joint U.S. and Canadian experiment used a special furnace to analyze
the phenomenon of diffusion, which is the slow mixing of materials by
the random movement of molecules of one substance into another.
April 3, Musabayev and Budarin performed a 6 1/2-hour spacewalk to install
handrails and foot restraints, install a new workstation, and brace
a solar array. All of this work was performed on the damaged Spektr
module. Thomas monitored their progress and recorded their efforts on
video. The work took longer than expected, so they had to postpone the
work station and bracing jobs. Also, in a short but somewhat chilling
event, contact with Musabayev was lost for several seconds. When it
was restored, he reported that he had accidentally turned off his spacesuit’s
power supply, stopping many functions, such as communications, cooling,
Three days later, the cosmonauts conducted a fatiguing 4 1/2-hour spacewalk.
They completed the installation of handrails and foot restraints on
Spektr and stabilized Spektr’s solar array with the special brace. But,
ground controllers instructed them to return to the station before working
on the Kvant-1 boom propulsion system. While they were outside the station,
a problem had developed with Mir’s attitude toward the Sun, and the
cosmonauts were needed inside Mir to direct firings of Priroda’s thrusters.
In an April 10 interview, Thomas talked about his life on Mir. He said
the view was always gorgeous. "You see texture. You see color.
The mountains you can see as folds in the land. And, you can see things
like mountain ranges as a collection of mountain ranges…. You can see
the way they’re all folded together, a bit like a rumpled carpet, and
they’re all connected…. The areas that are farmed stand out, as opposed
to the natural areas with different shades of green. Of course, it depends
on the season."
Thomas praised the Russian food. "The soups are outstanding and
the juices are just marvelous, and there’s plenty of it. I also have
an abundance of American food at my disposal. We exercise regularly.
I’m on a treadmill running 2.5 to three kilometers . . . every day,
something that I’m not perhaps as disciplined [to do] on Earth as I
should be." He said his mission was going well. "I feel good.
That’s one of the amazing things . . . you can feel very good in this
environment, which—if you think about it—is a very alien environment
He had lost some weight, said Thomas, which "was probably not
a bad thing." He had experienced a few aches and pains that he
thought were a consequence of spinal extension due to microgravity.
But, he had had no ear or stomach problems. "I feel very normal,
and feel very healthy and comfortable. So, I have no complaints about
it at all."
On April 11, the two Russian cosmonauts performed their third spacewalk.
Thomas continued to document their work and provide ground controllers
with systems data. This extravehicular activity, which took 6 1/2 hours
to complete, went very smoothly. The spacewalkers achieved their planned
goal of detaching the old thruster and pushing it away from the space
station. Thomas videotaped their progress from inside Mir. On April
17, Musabayev and Budarin went outside again to work on the boom jet
assembly. This time, something went wrong with Budarin’s communications;
but he was able to use a backup system. On April 24, they performed
yet another extravehicular activity, and finished their boom jet work.
The total spacewalk time for their five April excursions was just over
Toward the end of April, Thomas learned that the launch of Discovery
(STS-91) in June would be delayed five days to accommodate launch preparations
at Kennedy Space Center. In an interview, Thomas said, "I wasn’t
too surprised. I’ve done a lot of support work at the Cape. I know they’re
under a very demanding schedule with the processing flow. So, it didn’t
surprise me too much, and it’s only five days." Thomas was then
nearing his 100th day in orbit. He said that what he was really looking
forward to, upon his return to Earth, was a period of not having "schedules
in my life, and just being able to be free to do what I want [to do].
To take a walk or go to the store. Or go to visit friends. I think that’s
going to be the best part about being back."
By early May, Thomas was finishing up some of his scientific investigations.
He processed the final pair of samples for the QUELD and completed the
second of three experiment sessions of the study into the risks of renal
stones in microgravity. He had photographed the Arenal volcano in the
Philippines and a large dust storm that swept from the Sahara to the
Mediterranean Sea. He also talked about the large fires in Honduras
and the Yucatan Peninsula, and the smoke from these fires that was sweeping
out of Mexico and darkening skies as far away as Houston. Thomas said
that the Yucatan was so covered by smoke that he could not make out
In mid-May, Thomas began packing his belongings and scientific hardware,
and conducting an inventory of the U.S. equipment aboard the station.
His Russian crewmates performed maintenance on thermal loops and on
the Kvant-1 Elektron oxygen-generating system. They found a small leak
in the condensate recovery system, which they fixed by replacing a separator
unit and resetting a valve. Also, the primary cooling loop for the Kvant-1
module shut down automatically. The cosmonauts checked for leaks but
found none, so the loop was brought back online.
The crew loaded refuse into the Progress docked to Mir, and launched
the vehicle away from the station to prepare for the arrival of a new
resupply ship that carried a surprise for the crew—a guitar for Talgat
Thomas’ scientific research program was wrapping up with the focus
of his attention on the biotechnology experiment. The air bubbles in
the chamber had not hampered the growth of the three-dimensional cells,
and the experiment would remain powered on until the arrival of the
Space Shuttle Discovery.
But, before Andy Thomas could depart the station, the attitude control
computer failed again. The crew had to use the Soyuz jets to face Mir’s
arrays toward the Sun and regain solar power. They were able to activate
the gyrodynes in time for STS-91’s docking on June 4.
on Earth, the American astronaut described his feelings of being on
the American Space Shuttle, pulling away from the Russian Space Station
Mir. "Perhaps one of the most moving moments, though, was as we
drew further and further away. We went into the night side of the planet,
and I could see stars, and the running lights of the station were on.
You couldn’t see the station. All you could see was lights flashing,
and they were just going off into the distance, these flashing points
of light fading out slowly. That was kind of an emotional moment, because
I knew that would be the last time I would see it—ever."
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