The benefit of the space program is the unexpected. I can guarantee
you that as long as we continue pushing the boundaries, pushing the
frontiers, we will benefit and we’ll be surprised by how we’ll benefit.
- Frank L. Culbertson, Jr., Shuttle-Mir
the return of NASA-7 Mir Astronaut Andy Thomas to Earth, the highest
stage had been successfully shared by the United States and Russia.
The operational curtain of Shuttle-Mir fell on August 25, 1998, when
the Mir-25 cosmonauts brought back the final science results. However,
the next high-tech, high-stakes performance by these two former adversaries
was already under way. The U.S.-financed, Russian-built, Zarya module
of the International Space Station would launch on a Proton rocket from
Baikonur on November 20, 1998.
In retrospect, how should the Shuttle-Mir Program be remembered? How
does this partnership fit into the relatively short story of human spaceflight
and the larger story of human aspiration?
Historically, Shuttle-Mir shares similarities with all of NASA’s earlier
projects and programs. As did Project Mercury of 1958-63, Shuttle-Mir
focused U.S. public attention on individual astronauts. For several
years before Shuttle-Mir, Space Shuttle crews had been including up
to seven members, and few Americans could recite their names. However,
like the Mercury pioneers, each of the Mir astronauts metaphorically
"carried the mail" for all of NASA. Although each Mir astronaut
was supported by hundreds of NASA employees and each served under a
Russian commander, Americans could again identify with a single individual
and experience vicariously the astronaut’s aloneness and dangers.
As with the Gemini Project of 1962-66, Shuttle-Mir served as a critical
stepping-stone to a next, higher goal. Gemini was started after the
Apollo Program’s quest for the Moon had begun; Shuttle-Mir was devised
to prepare for the much more ambitious International Space Station Program.
Shuttle-Mir’s rapid pace was comparable to Gemini’s (NASA launched 10
manned missions in less than 20 months). During Shuttle-Mir, six of
the seven NASA Mir residencies followed immediately, one after another.
In both programs, tight schedules and rendezvous requirements forced
ground operations to be honed extra sharp. The Gemini XI launch "window"
lasted only two seconds. Every Shuttle-Mir Shuttle launch occurred during
its first launch window.
Rendezvous and spacewalking techniques were practically invented for
the Gemini flights; they were further perfected through Shuttle-Mir.
Gemini and Shuttle-Mir both sought to extend astronauts’ stays in space.
Gemini VII required astronauts Frank Borman and James A. Lovell, Jr.,
to spend 14 days in their cramped, two-person capsule. NASA-2 Mir Astronaut
Shannon Lucid spent 188 days in orbit. Furthermore, spacecraft attitude
control presented some very tense moments during both Gemini and Shuttle-Mir.
During Gemini VIII’s docking with an Agena booster, a thruster became
stuck, causing the joined spacecraft to begin tumbling. The crew of
Neil Armstrong and David Scott hurriedly undocked their capsule, but
it then rolled even faster at a dizzying rate of one revolution per
second. Forced to use their reentry control thrusters to stop the motion,
the crew had to execute an emergency return to Earth, a mere 10 hours
after their launch. A similar experience occurred during Shuttle-Mir
astronaut Mike Foale’s residence on Mir, when a collision with a Progress
resupply vehicle initiated a period of tumbling and power losses. Foale
had to use his knowledge of physics and the stellar constellations to
help devise a way to stop Mir’s tumbling.
Apollo and Shuttle-Mir shared some similarities, especially in the
area of public awareness. Public interest in Apollo waned after the
first two lunar landings, but the near loss of Apollo 13 brought back
the attention of television networks and the public, who's interest
again abated during the next, several successful Moon missions. Similarly,
Shuttle-Mir’s mishaps—notably a fire and a collision—riveted the public’s
attention. But, the smoother sailing of the last two American Mir residencies
received much less media ink. For both Apollo and Shuttle-Mir, the continuing
good news was often presented as no news at all.
The Skylab Project of 1973-74 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project orbital
link-up in 1975 together constituted a kind of proto-Shuttle-Mir. Skylab
was America’s first and only long-duration experiment before Shuttle-Mir.
Like the modules of the Russian Mir Space Station, Skylab was delivered
to orbit by a heavy launcher. During Skylab, three 3-person crews spent,
respectively, 28, 59, and 84 days in space. Both programs provided NASA
an opportunity to perform extended experiments in the medical and physical
sciences. Besides teaching NASA how to live for a long duration in orbit,
Skylab helped NASA gain other knowledge that was used during Shuttle-Mir,
such as performing spacewalks to repair vehicles in orbit. Another similarity
of the two space habitation programs was the extreme amount of work
required of the crews—not just in orbit but on the ground where 24-hour
monitoring and support continued until the crewmembers returned safely
Apollo-Soyuz, the goodwill gesture between the U.S. and the Soviet
Union, resulted in the first time spacecraft from two nations rendezvoused
and docked in orbit. Important hardware was developed, such as a common
docking system, and American and Russian space experts had their first
good looks at each other’s programs. In a forerunner to Shuttle-Mir,
Soviet cosmonauts and their backups trained at the NASA Johnson Space
Center, and the American crew and their backups trained in Star City.
Flight controllers from both nations conducted joint simulations. Perhaps
most importantly to the future Shuttle-Mir Program, individuals from
both space programs carried forward a tremendous working relationship
that provided a solid foundation of respect.
The last American space program before—and during—Shuttle-Mir involved
NASA’s Space Transportation System. The Orbiter’s abilities were absolutely
necessary for Shuttle-Mir, but in ways more differences than similarities
existed between the Shuttles and Mir. Space Shuttles are basically a
kinetic means of access to orbit, while space stations are passive orbital
platforms. Generally, a space shuttle performs the "getting there,"
while a space station provides the "being there."
While obviously the Shuttle-Mir Program left its mark in the history
of human spaceflight, how did this space partnership fit into the story
of humankind? A major historical distinction may be that it was the
second grand exploration project sponsored for the purpose of better
The ancient Greeks and Romans sailed for glory and to expand their
trading empire. The European nations from the 13th century onward likewise
explored for power and influence. Even the Lewis and Clark expedition,
200 years ago, was intended by President Thomas Jefferson to survey
U.S. claims to interior North America, as well as to study its geography
and biology. The one possible precedent for Shuttle-Mir as an expeditionary
means to establish and improve international relations was Admiral Cheng
Ho’s Grand Treasure Fleets expeditions from China in 1405-33. Cheng
Ho’s seventh command included possibly 317 ships and 7,000 crewmembers.
Its mission: to spread Chinese influence through the giving of gifts
to every nation the command could find.
Six hundred years later, Shuttle-Mir gave its own lasting gift to the
word—the example of the great Cold War adversaries, working together.
Also, the Shuttle-Mir Program fits nicely into the age-old forms of
myth, legend, and tale. Shuttle-Mir presented so many twists and turns
contained within a grand narrative arc that, upon reflection, it resembled
a classical drama. For its prologue, Shuttle-Mir had the U.S.-Soviet
Cold War and Space Race, and a situation similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo
and Juliet, with its "two households, both alike in dignity"
yet sharing an "ancient grudge." For Act One, astronaut Norm
Thagard ventured forth like a modern Marco Polo, traveling alone in
a foreign culture as an ambassador between East and West.
Shuttle-Mir’s Act Two began deceptively blissful with Shannon Lucid’s
record-setting flight. But, soon after came the fire and the collision.
The plot thickened with the second-guessing by the program’s opponents
and supporters. The final act rewove many narrative threads and the
Shuttle-Mir story ended with a note of triumph. Even NASA’s critic,
Congressman James Sensenbrenner, offered a back-handed compliment when
he said, "The Shuttle-Mir Program has been very useful in giving
our astronauts good training in crisis management."
While the program was moving toward completion with its goals accomplished,
"crisis management" was again what NASA managers were engaged
in. International Space Station budget overruns and Russian delays in
constructing station components were causing some in the U.S. Congress
to question the whole International Space Station Program. NASA Administrator
Dan Goldin was forced to consider the benefits and costs of moving ahead—with
and without the Russians. On top of that, a former chief of astronaut
safety claimed to have been ignored when he had raised concerns for
the safety of the astronauts onboard Mir. Finally, seeming to symbolize
NASA’s situation, some of Andy Thomas’ last Mir photos were of the smoke
from Mexican wildfires, which was casting a pall over the Johnson Space
Center in Houston.
Yet, with all the problems of getting Phase 2 started, the end of Phase
1 saw the Shuttle-Mir teams working well and "clicking." An
example came just before STS-91 Discovery’s launch, when Mir’s
attitude control computer failed again. According to NASA Training Manager
Tommy Capps, "Suddenly, we brought a team together. That could
not have happened a few years before…. We had [Russian flight director]
Victor Blagov [at Kennedy Space Center] to work it. We had a full team
sitting together—NASA and Russia—constantly communicating with each
other … and [pulling] together as a team.
"It was a very emotional experience," said Capps. "Really,
it was a sobering experience for me—because I really got to thinking
about how far we had come." Earlier in the program, "We would
have had a lot of sidestepping, and sashaying back and forth."
But by STS-91, "We were there. We were clicking. And we were a
Unemotional statistics reflect Shuttle-Mir’s operational accomplishments.
Seven U.S. astronauts spent a total of 975 days onboard Mir. Forty-three
different American astronauts flew to the space station. (They comprised
nearly half of all visitors to Mir.) In all the Shuttle flights to Mir,
no crew had to "suit up" for launch more than once, in spite
of the restrictive launch windows. The three Space Shuttle Orbiters
carried to Mir 28,000 pounds of supplies (67,000 pounds, counting water
and the docking module), and they brought back 17,500 pounds of equipment
and materials. Operationally, rendezvous and docking techniques were
developed and perfected.
As Shuttle-Mir was beginning, "We had no idea how much we would
learn," according to NASA’s Shuttle-Mir Program Manager Frank Culbertson.
"I think the most valuable lesson is that you’re going to have
things happen that are going to require problem solving continuously.
The best-laid plans, the best-designed systems—you’re still going to
have difficulties. Long-duration spaceflight is hard, and the most valuable
lesson we learned from that is to expect it to be difficult. Plan for
that. Train for that. And then be prepared to handle the unexpected."
Concerning in-orbit operations, Charlie Precourt, shuttle commander,
echoed Culbertson’s sentiments. He said, "What I hope the American
public can glean from the Shuttle-Mir Program is that all hardware breaks
down. We have to learn to take our hardware to space and not bring it
home in a hurry—like an airliner that might be flying home that has
a problem." According to Precourt, spacecraft need to be able to
be repaired in space. "If we don’t learn to do it out there, we
won’t ever be able to stay there very long. Because hardware does fail.
Our ultimate goal is to be able to go to the Moon and Mars, and put
bases there for scientific research and for exploration purposes, and
stay there and survive.
"The fact that the Mir went through ups and downs and we were
able to live through that ... is a great testament to what we were able
to do together, and it should make people think twice when they try
to criticize the Russians and their system for what it is or is not
capable of doing," added Precourt.
NASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid said that it’s not only the hardware,
"it’s the people you fly with. And if the people are compatible
and you get along, then you’ll have a great flight."
Hardware, software, processes, planning, management, operations, and
human nature—all of these presented challenges during Shuttle-Mir, and
all offered lessons to learn.
At the end of Shuttle-Mir, Culbertson looked back at its four goals.
He said that the first goal was originally "to learn to work with
the Russians," but that was quickly changed to "to learn to
work with each other," and this certainly did not mean merely teaching
each other. It meant "observing each other and learning from each
other," and realizing that both sides had a lot to offer. At different
times, both the Russians and the Americans surprised, dismayed, and
perplexed one another. Still, Culbertson could later tell a story of
how neither side was "stranger" than the other. Once, his
wife Rebecca asked him why many Americans made comments about the Russian
engineers. They said the Russians seemed to bring their own foods to
Houston. They didn’t get out much. They occasionally walked to grocery
stores. They ate mostly in their rooms. And they seemed to dress, well,
funny. Then she asked him what the Americans did in Moscow. Culbertson
told her, "Most of us take our own food, eat mostly in our rooms,
walk everywhere except to work, and keep mostly to ourselves. And we
certainly dress funny." In orbit and on the ground, the getting
used to each other—and each other’s ways—was a major challenge and great
accomplishment of Shuttle-Mir.
The second Phase 1 goal—the mitigation of risk for the International
Space Station—was sometimes achieved in unforeseen ways. Events such
as the fire and collision injected unexpected danger into the program,
and showed both NASA and Russian managers where they were lacking. In
Culbertson’s words, "We got more than we bargained for." Fortunately,
they didn’t pay too high a price.
Thinking about the emergencies onboard Mir caused Culbertson to look
forward to the International Space Station. He said, "You could
probably take most of the things that happened during the course of
the Phase 1 program and predict that each of them will happen, in one
form or another, during the 15 or so years of [International Space Station]
life." That would include a future argument about when the International
Space Station Program should end, and about how safe and useful the
aging station will be after 10 years in orbit. "All of that’s going
to happen," said Culbertson. He hoped enough of the people who
had experienced Shuttle-Mir would "still be around," to deal
with it appropriately.
The third Shuttle-Mir goal was to conduct long-duration spaceflight
studies for the United States. This was NASA’s first opportunity since
Skylab in 1973, and Norm Thagard broke Skylab’s record on the very first
NASA Mir increment. NASA collected much data on human physiology in
microgravity, but it also learned about the psychological aspects of
people living a long time in space. "That aspect has been eye-opening,"
So were the psychological effects of the support team members on the
ground, who were also dealing with a different language and culture,
and with long hours of hard work, separation, and deprivation. Culbertson
said, "That is an unexpected lesson that we’re going to have to
work on very hard, to ensure that we don’t burn out our people—both
in orbit and on the ground—and that we don’t neglect them.
And that we provide them with sufficient support, so that they’ll want
to keep doing this job over and over and over, because it’s harder than
we thought it would be."
Shuttle-Mir’s fourth goal was to conduct a science research program.
Although much good science was returned from Shuttle-Mir, from a science
program that spanned many disciplines, Culbertson said he occasionally
"took a lot of heat" from the scientists. The scientists would
protest, "We’re last priority," and Culbertson would respond,
"No, you’re fourth priority"—after other matters that at the
moment were more critical to overall success. "You have to keep
it in perspective," Culbertson said. "If it goes well, it
gets a good bit of attention. If it goes poorly, it gets a heck of a
lot of attention. And people feel like they’re failing if one of the
research experiments doesn’t work." Thanks to Shuttle-Mir, Culbertson
said, the whole concept was changing on how to conduct research in space.
"Mir operations and life were hard," Frank Culbertson said.
"A lot of people have said it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever
done. And my prediction is that the [International Space Station] is
going to be even harder, for a lot of reasons that people don’t understand
yet…. So, this next 10 years is going to be really, really fascinating.
"And the story is going to be even more interesting than the one
we're telling here."