| Considering | Shuttle-Mir Accomplishments | ISS | Comparing the Increments | Safety and Risk |

Considering Shuttle-Mir

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 Program Manager

The seven U.S. Mir Residents, l to r, bottom row - Thagard, Blaha, Linenger, Wolf, l to r top row - Thomas, Lucid, FoaleWith 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 to Earth.

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 international relations.

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 program."

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," Culbertson said.

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."

Back to
Looking Back


| Considering | Shuttle-Mir Accomplishments | ISS | Comparing the Increments | Safety and Risk |

Shuttle-Mir Accomplishments

The Shuttle-Mir Program showed that space exploration is no longer a competition between nations. NASA officials pointed out that the Shuttle-Mir Program also:

Developed flexibility by operating in space with several launch vehicles and a space station.

Conducted long-term operations with multiple control centers and U.S. and Russian teams at each other’s facilities.

Conducted spacewalks outside both Russian and U.S. vehicles with astronauts and cosmonauts testing each other’s spacesuits, a preparation for joint walks to assemble the International Space Station.

Trained astronauts, cosmonauts, and other team members in each other’s language, methods, and tools to facilitate operations in orbit and make mission training more efficient.

Created a joint U.S./Russian process for analysis, safety assessment, and certification of flight readiness.

Led to refinements in software, hardware, and procedures that will be used in operations onboard the International Space Station.

Established that noncritical systems may fail and be replaced through routine maintenance, without compromising safety or mission success.

Showed that multiple oxygen-generation systems are essential for safe, uninterrupted operations.

Mated U.S. and Russian hardware in orbit and verified complex robotics operations during the delivery and assembly of the Russian-built docking module.

Collected data on the effects of long-duration exposure of hardware to the space environment.

Learned how to conduct long-term research and maintenance on a space station through flexible scheduling of crew time on orbit.

Developed a process for mission planning and psychological support for astronauts on orbit during extended periods.

Read the Phase 1 Joint Report (PDF)


| Considering | Shuttle-Mir Accomplishments | ISS | Comparing the Increments | Safety and Risk |

Comparing the Increments

NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha said, "I’m trying to tell people … that they hear a different message from different people who flew on the long flights…. Each one of the seven long Mir flights really was different."

Blaha recommended, "Instead of looking at the seven people who flew these missions as different people, realize that the missions were different. I think the people are actually more similar."

Blaha had a good point. The seven NASA Mir astronauts enjoyed—and endured—many weeks onboard the space station Mir. How to compare their long orbital sojourns? The similarities and differences put together a picture.

All seven Mir astronauts were products of NASA’s intensive selection and rigorous training. Three came out of the military; two came from academia. All had highly technical backgrounds in physical or biological sciences. Three were medical doctors. Three were jet pilots. All were focused, determined, disciplined individuals, accustomed to success. All seven were articulate—and unafraid to speak their minds. They were very alike—in courage and grit.

Overachievers? They were achievers, certainly. But "over-achievement" means achievement of one goal at the cost of something else. All handled their challenges successfully, and all met with continued success after Mir.

Three—Thagard, Blaha, and Linenger—left NASA shortly after their Mir odysseys. Thagard and Blaha had flown many Shuttle missions and so were nearing the ends of their space careers anyway. After Mir, both became involved in the Challenger Center for Space Education. Blaha entered the business world in San Antonio, Texas. Thagard became a professor at Florida State University. Linenger entered private life in Michigan.

Four—Lucid, Foale, Wolf, and Thomas—remained NASA astronauts to work in the International Space Station Program and to continue training for spaceflight.

The Mir missions of these seven astronauts were more like each other’s than they were like any other missions in NASA’s history. All had to deal with breakdowns in equipment and communications. All seven endured months of microgravity, isolation, separation, confinement, and constant danger, all the while in an unfamiliar social and linguistic environment.

But, on closer inspection, each increment did have its idiosyncrasies.

Thagard’s was the first—the groundbreaker—separated from everything that had gone before it and separated, too, from the six contiguous missions.

Lucid’s flight was blessed with crew harmony but was challenged by an unexpected 6-week extension.

Blaha served under a "new" commander—new to Blaha and new to spaceflight.

Linenger faced a dangerous fire early in his flight, witnessed a near-miss with another spacecraft, and endured poor communications with managers on the ground.

Foale survived a frightening collision and the danger that followed.

Wolf launched to Mir during a very public controversy over whether he should go at all.

Thomas’ increment has been called "smoother sailing"; but it, too, had its challenges. Besides, "smoother" is used to compare it to the other six increments, which were hardly smooth at all.

In his remarks on the seven increments, Blaha went on to comment on the Russian element. He said, "The Russian commander each of us flew with was a different human being. We know from our Apollo and Shuttle missions that the commander has a lot to do with [the] tone of a mission." Further, Blaha said, "Anything that occurs on a short Shuttle flight is magnified. [If it occurs on a long-duration mission], it is magnified again if it’s in a person’s second language." Misunderstandings can be more difficult to overcome.

In sum, the seven NASA increments on Mir differed in important ways. They were influenced by the order of the increments, the personalities onboard, and the events that transpired during each term. The astronauts themselves were indeed similarly trained, but each astronaut was a unique individual with a strong personality. Each succeeded in his or her own way.

One could paraphrase the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and say, "Easy successes are all alike, but any hard won victory is like no other."

Read about the Mir Increments


| Considering | Shuttle-Mir Accomplishments | ISS | Comparing the Increments | Safety and Risk |

International Space Station

International Space Station, December 2000Four months after astronaut Andy Thomas ended the final Shuttle-Mir increment, on-orbit construction of the International Space Station (ISS) began with the Proton rocket launch November 20, 1998, of the U.S.-owned, Russian-built Zarya control module from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Two weeks later, Endeavour (STS-88) launched from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to deliver and attach the U.S.-built Unity connecting module. STS-96 Discovery delivered tools and cranes to the ISS in June 1999. STS-101 Atlantis launched in May 2000 to perform station maintenance and deliver more supplies. The Russian Zvezda service module launched and docked with the ISS in July 2000, to become the third major component. In September 2000, STS-106 Atlantis visited the ISS to outfit Zvezda.

Five other STS missions traveled to the ISS in the next seven months to continue station assembly. Also during that time period, the Expedition One crew launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket October 31, 2000. The second expedition crew arrived March 10, 2001, aboard Discovery to begin its assignment and to continue the newest phase of human spaceflight exploration.

The International Space Station Program represents a 16-nation partnership. When complete, the one million-pound space station will include more than 100 components, six laboratories, and provide more space for research than any spacecraft ever built. The ISS will support crews of up to seven residents for missions of three to six months in length. More than 40 spaceflights over five years and at least three space vehicles—the Space Shuttle, the Soyuz rocket, and the Russian Proton rocket—will deliver the various conponents to Earth orbit.


| Considering | Shuttle-Mir Accomplishments | ISS | Comparing the Increments | Safety and Risk |

Safety and Risk

Spaceflight is inherently risky from launch to landing. Shuttle-Mir managers had to deal with the risks, plus the dangers of combining two independent space programs and docking two large and complex vehicles in space. One of their goals was to minimize risk on the future International Space Station and while several science experiments onboard Mir studied risk mitigation, the Shuttle-Mir experience itself presented several hazardous scenarios. These were unexpected and unwanted, yet they demonstrated the dangers and tested the program’s responses.

The dangers included the fire during Jerry Linenger’s mission and the collision during Mike Foale’s mission. Also occurring were chemical leaks, control system breakdowns and computer crashes, oxygen supply problems, physical injuries and mental stress, and the possibilities that either the Shuttle or the Progress vehicle might be delayed or prevented from resupplying the space station. The responses resulted in both space programs becoming more involved and more in touch with each other’s operations.

In the beginning, according to NASA’s Deputy Program Manager James Van Laak, there was "a large leap of trust" in the other nation’s space program, which both programs made. NASA Program Manager Frank Culbertson said, "Initially the agreement was we would assure the safety of any cosmonauts on the Shuttle and they would accept that, and they would ensure the safety of any astronauts on the Mir or the Soyuz and we would accept that." After the fire and collision, the arrangement was more like President Reagan’s dictum on arms reduction: Trust, but verify.

After the accidents, critics in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere called for the U.S. to abandon the Shuttle-Mir Program. NASA ordered studies by the Stafford Commission, the Inspector General, and other groups, and then determined that continuing the program was worth the risk.

During NASA-7 mission on Mir, Frank Culbertson said, "The benefits are immense ... Figuring out a way to keep the station going in adversity is something that I hope we are learning. It was very discouraging to me when there seemed to be so many people in the media and Congress who just wanted to walk away from everything when it got tough. ... But you don't accomplish much by staying on the ground. ... This was an excellent way for us to learn from people who've been doing it a long time. Mir was a satisfactory, if not pristine, vehicle to be in, and we were able to conduct operations and conduct science. And we could do it safely."

Next Chapter - Mir Space Station!