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Shannon Lucid is ready to spend 4 months on Mir! Or is it 6? We’ll learn the quirks of the Russian training system, the hazards of old Soviet batteries, and the value of Jell-O.
Episode Audio #
NOTE: This transcript was made by me just copying and pasting the script that I read to make the podcast. I often tweak the phrasing on the fly and then forget to update the script, so this is not guaranteed to align perfectly with the episode audio, but it should be pretty close. Also, since these are really only intended to be read by myself, I might use some funky punctuation to help remind myself how I want a sentence to flow, so don’t look to these as a grammar reference. If you notice any egregious transcription errors or notes to myself that I neglected to remove, feel free to let me know and I’ll fix it.
Hello, and welcome to The Space Above Us. Episode 153. Long Duration Mir flight NASA-2: M&Ms and Russian Friends
Last time, we talked about the 16th flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-76. The flight’s primary focus was on rendezvousing and docking with the Russian space station Mir in order to deliver some precious cargo. Once there, the crew transferred thousands of kilograms of scientific equipment, water, oxygen, nitrogen, and one of their own: Shannon Lucid. Her six month stay on Mir built on the earlier work of Norm Thagard, broke spaceflight records, and marked the beginning of more than two years of continuous American presence in space. Today, we’re going to follow Lucid through the Docking Module and learn about her half a year living in space. But before we do that and learn all about faulty batteries, the challenges of staying connected with home, and the value of a bag of Jello, let’s take a step back and examine how Lucid came to be here in the first place.
Just to sort of frame this episode, I want to say at the offset that I’ll mostly be pulling from an oral history Lucid gave a few years after this flight, as well as a book she wrote called Tumbleweed. The book is a little strange because it was only published in 2020, two and a half decades after the mission, and it seems to be self-published. I would think that such an engaging story by a trailblazing astronaut would have publishers jumping to grab hold of it, but what do I know. The book reads sort of like an extended oral history or like reading someone’s journal entries. And what I really liked about it was that it gives a great feel for what the human experience was like. So since we’ll have a total of seven of these Mir missions, this one is going to focus a lot less on science and a lot more on experience. That book, again, if you want to check it out, is called Tumbleweed. OK, let’s get into it.
Shannon Lucid, of course, entered our narrative with the first class of space shuttle astronauts, joining NASA in 1978. At this point in the story she’s already spent more than a month in low earth orbit, spread across four space shuttle missions. That’s a pretty respectable astronaut career already. But as cooperation between NASA and the Russian space program blossomed in the early 1990s, an opportunity crossed her path. Hoot Gibson asked her if she would be interested in being sent for Russian language lessons. He made it clear that this was not a crew assignment, but that it did have the potential to evolve into a long duration stint on Mir. Lucid jumped at the chance.
Of course, we now know that that this opportunity did indeed evolve into a true flight assignment. Lucid was assigned to NASA-2 and would become the second American to serve on a long-duration mission aboard Mir alongside Russian partners. So before she knew it, she was flying off to live and train at Star City, the Cosmonaut training center a couple of hours outside of Moscow.
When people are selected as NASA astronauts they’ll typically spend an entire year just learning the basics of the physics of spaceflight, how procedures work, how to fly the T-38, and just generally getting up to speed. Then they’ll spend a few years supporting other missions while undergoing general, non-mission-specific training. When they’re assigned to a mission they’ll usually have another year or more of training specifically focused on the tasks required on that flight. During Shannon Lucid’s training in Star City, she would have to learn how to fly in the Soyuz, how to live and work on Mir, as well as how to perform all the science experiments being flown on the mission.. in about a year. Just a year. And to top it off, not a word of it would be in English. It was going to be a busy twelve months.
We’ll get more into that language aspect in a bit, but first let’s look at life outside of training. Lucid’s first impressions of her apartment in Star City was that it was decent but a little small by American standards. She later learned it was actually quite nice compare to that of her neighbors. She even had a small guest room that she turned into an office. But it came with some issues. Like a lot of large and dated apartment buildings, there was no individual control over the heat. This isn’t all that unusual, but the extreme variation in temperatures definitely was. Living in the same building was fellow NASA astronaut and Mir-crew-member-in-training John Blaha, and his apartment was so hot that he often had to leave the windows open.. in the winter.. in Russia. Meanwhile, Lucid’s apartment was so cold that she had to bundle up in multiple layers of warm clothes just when sitting around and studying. It was so cold that one night she heard several loud popping noises coming from the kitchen. Upon investigation she discovered some cans of Diet Coke that had frozen and exploded. Not wanting to deal with it at the moment, she picked the cans up and put them in the sink.. where they were still frozen in the morning.
When she tried to make a call to her family back home, Lucid was distraught to discover that the phone system seemed to essentially be completely broken. She might try for nearly an hour to establish a phone call back home and if she was successful at all she’d have to fight through waves of static. She was starting to worry that she’d be cut off from her family for this entire trip until her daughter came through with a name that I haven’t heard in a looong time, a long time: Compuserve. Compuserve was one of the major internet brands of the 1990s, and by using their service, Lucid was able to send and exchange email reliably. So if you’re ever time traveling in mid-90s Russia and need to get in contact with someone, now you know who to go to.
And of course, Lucid being an astronaut, and thus an adventurous and tenacious person, she was unwilling to spend the entire year shuffling back and forth between training and her apartment. Soon she was navigating the sprawling Moscow train system like an old pro. Every Sunday she would make a two hour journey to a movie theater in Moscow that for one hour a week served as a church. And as time went on she explored further and further into the Russian countryside. It was pretty wild for an un-escorted American who had been raised with the shadow of the Soviet Union as the big-bad of the world.
When she wasn’t dodging exploding soda cans in her apartment or bustling through the Moscow subway, Shannon Lucid was in training at Star City. And one thing became readily apparent: the human space programs of the United States and Russia have wildly different concepts of how training should work. This is fascinating to me since both programs clearly get a lot of remarkable stuff done. But it’s so different that I kind of have to wonder. You’ll see what I mean.
A top priority was to continue her training in the Russian language itself. Her future crewmates would speak no English and all of the labels, procedures, and emergency instructions would all be in Russian. She simply had to learn it. Period. Every weekday for week after week, for hours a day she would sit in a big classroom with her instructor and John Blaha, and they would review technical Russian. This was after a couple of hours of self-study in her apartment, and before a couple of hours of more self-study in her apartment. Because the lights in the classroom emitted a loud buzzing noise when turned on, the trio turned them off, sitting in the gloom of an unlit Russian winter day.
The language training was a slog, but there wasn’t really any way around that. Learning any language in a year is going to be a grueling experience and Lucid and Blaha needed to be able to speak the language for their upcoming flights. But the real weirdness began when they actually began any systems training. Lucid would be listening to a lecture about some system on Mir and would stop them to ask “if this part of the system breaks what will happen? How do you work around it?” This is a typical question from a crew member training on the American side. They want to not just know what a system does but how it works, what its role is in the greater system, and what it means if its performance is degraded or if it breaks entirely. But in Russia, questions like this would receive a blank stare from her instructor. The question made no sense to them. First, the expectation was that nothing on Mir ever broke ever. Second, if it breaks, just replace it. Hey turns out training to fly in space is pretty easy. If broken, fix. Done! Why would you need to know more?
In a similar vein, Lucid was in a training simulation, learning about reentry. In the sim, the orbital module of the Soyuz failed to separate and the crew had to work around this problem before they could reenter. Lucid asked the natural question that I’m sure many of you are thinking right: what can cause the orbital module to fail to separate? After all, it came up in the sim, so the sim operators must have some specific failure mode in mind and it would be good to learn about it. Eventually the best answer she got from the sim supervisor was that the module failed to separate.. “Because that is the way that I did it.” Ohhhkay fine.
Lucid also discovered that the differences extended to the technical documentation. NASA had spent years refining the art of developing crisp, succinct procedures. They’re so good at it that other industries consult with NASA when they want to improve their own procedures and documentation. After all, when the cabin is suddenly depressurizing you want your documentation to be clear and to the point. The Russian procedures, meanwhile, would be full of fluff, forcing the reader to dig for the one useful bit of information hidden within. To illustrate this point, Lucid was once struggling through a lengthy procedure, translating the Russian line by line. Eventually the instructor drew a line on the page and said “All this is not needed”. Only one line was left. He then said “You just need to remove the cap. That is all.”
And if you’re thinking that this wouldn’t be a major problem since Lucid could always get her own custom procedures, you’re wrong. First of all, it wouldn’t be appropriate. The goal here wasn’t to do things the NASA way while in Russia. It was to get the true cosmonaut experience and learn a whole new way of doing things. Lucid might sometimes find it exasperating and I might poke fun at it here, but clearly the Russian way of doing things got the job done. The Russians had been flying long duration spaceflight for decades. There were a number of alarming hiccups, but that was no different than our own program. So clearly something about this approach lead to success.
But in any case, even if Lucid wanted to rewrite all the procedures in the NASA style the Russians wouldn’t allow it. Onboard Mir were experiments funded by NASA, built by NASA, done for NASA scientists, delivered on a NASA vehicle, and operated by a NASA astronaut.. but the procedures would be written by Russia. OK fine. Except now we’ve got a game of translation telephone going on. The English procedure were translated into Russian and then written like a Russian procedure and I believe turned back into English though I’m not completely sure. I guess it was nice to put it back into English but all this translation lead to some fun errors. In her book, Lucid notes one time that the instructions were intended to say “Turn switch to 90 degree position”. But instead it said “Turn the switch for 90 minutes”. The instructor wanted to do the procedures as written and Lucid and Blaha struggled to use their limited Russian to explain that it made no sense.
And this rigid adherence to the plan popped up in other areas as well. After getting Norm Thagard’s feedback, Russia agreed to give the American crew members more responsibility. I’m not sure if this analogy is perfect, but it sounded to me sort of like being upgraded from Payload Specialist to Mission Specialist. Unfortunately for Lucid and Blaha, the Russians took this to mean that the training should instantly become much more detailed and difficult. And that’s how Lucid found herself in a lesson about the names of various bolts on the Soyuz rocket, which launched the Soyuz spacecraft into orbit. She protested, saying that she would be launching on the shuttle. Yes, there was a chance that in an emergency she might have to reenter on the Soyuz spacecraft, but by that point the Soyuz rocket would be long gone. The instructor didn’t care, he wanted her to learn the names of the bolts. Thankfully, after one frustrating session this situation was eventually resolved and Lucid was spared too much Russian bolt-knowledge.
But perhaps the strangest aspect of Lucid’s training is the fact that for much of it she had almost no idea what she would be doing in space for a planned four month mission. This is best illustrated when someone from NASA Public Affairs called Lucid to ask if she would be interested in speaking with a journalist about her upcoming flight. Lucid said that she’d love to but it might not be a great idea since she has no clue what she’ll be working on and that might not give the best impression. The Public Affairs Officer, who I have to imagine was somewhat taken aback, agreed and canceled the interview. But what’s hilarious is that a week later she called again and told Lucid that she had spoken with the chief scientist at NASA headquarters and that her job on Mir would be the chief engineer on the new Priroda module. She’d be reconfiguring it and in charge of all of its systems. Lucid responded that she wasn’t sure what she was doing on Mir but she was definitely not the chief engineer on Priroda.
And bizarrely, this also extended to her crew. She knew the names of her future crewmates but despite living in Russia for months did not meet them face to face until they all went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for payload training.
And actually, this is a perfect time to introduce those crewmates.
Commanding Mir-21 was Yuri Onufriyenko. Yuri Onufriyenko was born on February 6th, 1961 in Ryasnoe, in the Zolochev district in the Kharkov region of what is now Ukraine. He earned a pilot-engineer’s diploma from the V.M. Komarov Eisk Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots, and later earned a degree in cartography from Moscow State University. In between those two degrees he joined the Soviet Air Force, serving as a senior pilot. In 1989 he was selected as a Cosmonaut and this is his first of two lengthy flights.
Joining Onufriyenko for the Soyuz ride to Mir would be Board Engineer 1 Yuri Usachov. Yes, that’s right, on this flight are two Yuri’s. Yuri Usachov was born on October 9th, 1957 in Donetsk, in what is now Ukraine. So yeah, not only are they both named Yuri, they were both born in Ukraine. Usachov earned an engineering diploma from the Moscow Aviation Institute before heading off to work for the Russian space company Energia. Just like his commander, he was selected as a Cosmonaut in 1989, spending six months on Mir as a Board Engineer for the Mir EO-15 mission. If you’re curious what a “Board Engineer” is, it’s basically equivalent to a Mission Specialist and Flight Engineer. This is Usachov’s second of four spaceflights.
On February 21st, 1996, at 3:34 pm Moscow time, Onufriyenko and Usachov lifted off in their Soyuz spacecraft on the way to Mir. After an uneventful ascent, rendezvous, and docking, two thirds of the Mir 21 crew began their mission. Let’s turn our attention back to that third crew member who will complete the trio.
Unlike Norm Thagard, Shannon Lucid would not be riding the Soyuz to and from Mir. In fact, except in the case of an emergency landing, all remaining astronauts to stay on Mir were planning to take the shuttle to and from Mir. That shuttle ride was STS-76, which lifted off on March 22nd, just over a month after the Mir crew. One of the first things the combined crew did after docking was to transfer Lucid’s custom-fitted Soyuz seat liner and her Russian launch and entry suit. After installing the liner and performing a pressure check on the suit, Lucid had an assured method of getting back home in the case of an emergency and was able to transition over to the Mir crew.
Lucid’s mental separation from the shuttle crew began more or less immediately. While the shuttle crew were busy ferrying supplies back and forth between the two vehicles, Lucid was already setting up her new working and living area on Mir. On top of that, the shuttle crew had to begin sleep-shifting in anticipation of landing. That is, every day they would get up a little earlier or a little later so that their sleep cycle lined up such that they would be wide awake when it was time to go home. So while the STS-76 crew was still around, their days overlapped less and less.
When the time came to leave, Lucid hugged her former crew and then watched as the hatch was sealed up. As Atlantis backed away, Lucid watched through the window and played the role of translator for both crews. Before long, Atlantis was just a particularly bright point of light on the horizon, and then it was gone.
Commander Onufriyenko announced that it was time to celebrate the official start of the complete Mir 21 crew, so they unpacked a grapefruit given to them by the STS-76 crew and a cheese wheel from the Russian supplies. They also got a few extra hours of sleep to help get better aligned with Moscow time. Sort of a strange combination, but honestly, a grapefruit and a nap sounds pretty great to me right now.
Alright! So Shannon Lucid was on Mir! What now? Well, we’re going to be here for a while, so in no particular order we’re going to rotate through a few different aspects of life on the Russian space station.
One of the most striking differences was the pace of day to day life. As we know, the shuttle ran on fuel cells, which meant that its time on orbit was limited primarily by the amount of fuel cell reactants it carried. Once the hydrogen and oxygen ran out there was no more electricity, which is not the best thing for a spaceship. Enhancements like the Extended Duration Orbiter made it theoretically possible to fly a shuttle mission as long as 30 days, but in practice they tended to be around one or two weeks. One or two weeks is not a ton of time. Every second of every day was allocated to quickly and efficiently working through mountains of science experiments, payload operations, EVAs, exercise for the health of the crew, and so on. And as we’ve seen, with such a short duration there is a temptation to overwork. We’ve seen crews attempt to work all-out for day after day after day, counting on the inevitable crash to come after a successful landing. To a certain extent we even saw that happen on Skylab. Those flights were significantly longer than the Apollo missions up to that point, but were still relatively limited in scope.
Life on Mir wasn’t like that. Mir had been there for ten years already and would be there for years to come. Yes, there was a lot to get done, but if something didn’t get done today there was always tomorrow and the next day. Life onboard was a marathon, not a sprint. So while they certainly worked hard, the crew had a lot more free time to focus on their own personal health, both physical and mental.
Another major difference between life on the shuttle and life on Mir is a pretty obvious one but one still worth digging into.. they spoke Russian! Neither of the Yuri’s spoke any English. Lucid recalls that just about the only English Usachov knew was the opening line to that song “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, Brother John? Brother John?” And just that opening line. Sorry if that is now stuck in your head.
Lucid had some cause to be concerned about the language barrier that would inevitably exist between her and her crewmates. The Russian lessons were strenuous and difficult. She struggled for a year in Star City, trying to understand others and make herself understood. One moment in particular highlights the struggle. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so demoralizing. While training in the Russia equivalent of the Vomit Comet, Lucid put her new language skills to use and struck up a conversation with cosmonaut-in-training Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya. Lucid was feeling good about interacting with someone new and kept talking to her for a while. Then Kuzhelnaya smiled and asked Lucid what language she was speaking. Oops.
Lucid’s assumption was that somehow, by the time she actually got up to Mir, the whole language situation would just work itself out. It was sort of a gamble but what was the alternative? Well, it turns out Lucid was right. She may not have been speaking perfect Russian, but she actually had little difficulty communicating with Onufriyenko and Usachov. Her crewmates made an effort to speak clearly and at a reasonable pace, unlike me. They also made sure to not let her feel excluded or isolated. When Lucid did struggle to find the right word, she would sometimes just say an English word in a Russian accent and with a Russian verb conjugation.. and somehow that would often work! The Russian crew would just accept these made-up words and they became part of what they called their “cosmic language”. The list of cosmic language words was so useful and prevalent that when the Russian crew swapped out near the end of the flight, Onufriyenko and Usachov gave a list to the new crew, saying “These are the words that you need to know to live and work with Shannon.”
Despite all the apprehension about difficulties with the language, they only had to resort to a Russian to English dictionary once for the entire flight.
Something else that had been a point of apprehension and that you may have wondered about was the potential for sexism. Lucid herself didn’t seem to be too concerned about it, but it was tough not to notice that despite holding the record for flying the first woman in space, only two women had flown in space as Cosmonauts since Valentina Tereshkova. Some folks on the ground had been concerned that the Russians might not treat Lucid as a full member of the crew. Well, it turned out to be a complete non-issue. In fact, the only moment I could see that even bordered on sexism was actually a pretty funny lighthearted moment. Shortly after joining the crew, the Yuri’s presented Lucid with a mirror that was left over from a science experiment and said “We thought that maybe you would like a mirror since you are a woman.” Lucid was touched by the thoughtfulness and thanked them for it.
Another key difference between the Mir and shuttle was that while the Russians did have a geostationary communications network similar to TDRS, it was expensive for them to use, so the cash-strapped space agency primarily relied on passes over Russian ground stations. Technically there were a couple of ground stations in the United States but for whatever reason, the Mir-21 crew could never quite get them to work. Weirdly enough, while they usually couldn’t get the comms to work as desired, they would sometimes pick up unrelated radio signals like police and EMT activity.
If I understand correctly, there were several comm passes a day with the ground, but with two specifically available for Lucid to use to speak with her NASA support team. This was a pretty striking difference to the weeks of isolation that we saw with Norm Thagard so I have to assume this was another change based on his feedback. But even with a few passes a day, the crew had to plan ahead. A ground pass only lasts around 10 minutes at best, so it was important to be prepared to communicate what you needed to communicate. Onufriyenko insisted that the entire crew gather for all comm passes so that precious time wouldn’t be wasted tracking someone down if they were needed. These passes also served as a nice natural point to take a break and socialize for a few minutes.
Every other week, Lucid was able to speak with her family, sometimes with video and sometimes just audio. And in one funny instance, video but no audio! What’s kind of incredible was her family didn’t even need to be at Mission Control to participate. All they needed to do was dial a specific phone number and it would get routed over to Russia, through their mission control, and up to Mir. On one call with her son, Lucid noticed some background noise. He explained that he was calling from a phone booth at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in the Texas panhandle and that she was hearing the highway. And yet he was talking to someone in space! Technology is weird sometimes.
Lucid also had access to regular emails from her family, again thanks to Compuserve. Her NASA support team on the ground in Russia would regularly connect her laptop to the phone lines, get new email, and then make sure they were added on to the data uplinks to Mir. Lucid would then get them on a floppy disk that she brought over to her personal laptop to read.
But when the bi-weekly video calls and email wasn’t enough, there was also a ham radio onboard Mir. Before heading to orbit, Lucid talked some of her family members into getting amateur radio licenses so they could talk directly to each other when Mir was passing over Houston. At first it didn’t work so great since entry-level gear isn’t going to be the best for tracking an object zipping by in orbit. But fear not, the Johnson Space Center ham radio club was there to help. With their tracking antenna, the Lucid family could enjoy crystal clear audio calls that lasted up to ten minutes. And since one of her daughters worked at JSC, it was easy to pop over for a chat during lunch. The only catch was that since it’s ham radio, anyone else with the right equipment could listen in, so there wasn’t really any privacy. But for a nice little catch-up chat it was a great option.
Of course, while the important day to day work revolved around the ground communications passes, the day really revolved around the same thing everyone’s day revolves around: food. The crew would eat their meals together and it was a great time to go over what they had accomplished that day, what trouble they ran into, and it was another chance for Lucid to practice more Russian. Food came in large containers that had enough food for the entire crew for a week. When they opened them up they’d find a piece of paper listing what was supposed to be eaten by who, when. Of course they immediately discarded this and like any of us, ate their favorites first. They also would mix and match their food. Lucid found that the mayonnaise packets that came with her NASA food could be traded for all sorts of goodies from the Russians.
The crew had chosen what food they wanted in their containers for the mission, but it turned out to be sort of a moot point. They always opened the oldest container first so they wouldn’t lose any to spoilage. But since there was always a little extra food on each mission this meant that they spent the majority of their flight eating the food chosen by the previous crew.
While there was more NASA food on board, again courtesy of feedback from Thagard, Lucid actually found that she enjoyed most of the Russian food. She started most days with Russian soup for breakfast, and also enjoyed the meat and potato casseroles. She said that since they were a little greasier they were more like regular earth-bound food.
The day to day fare wasn’t bad, but when you get down to it it was still super-shelf-stable food carefully crafted to provide nutrition. In other words, it was boring. So the crew always had their mind on any number of little treats available to them, as well as the ones that weren’t available to them. After a conversation about hot dogs, pizza, and barbecue, they quickly established a new rule: no talking about food that isn’t on the station. But for an example of some treats that were on the station, we can look to Lucid’s Sunday routine of sharing a bag of Jello. When Lucid had found out that Mir had a small refrigerator onboard, she requested a bunch of Jello powder be included with the onboard rations. She would mix the powder with hot water in a plastic bag, put it in the fridge, and then bring it out on Sunday nights. She said that more than once she had to bat away hungry Cosmonauts sniffing around for Jello before Sunday had rolled around.
The power of Jello was made clear when Lucid lost one of her running shoes somewhere on the station. Of course, astronauts and cosmonauts don’t need shoes most of the time, but with a rigorous workout routine that included plenty of treadmill time, a missing shoe was a serious problem. After her own search failed, Lucid offered up an entire bag of Jello as a bounty to whichever Yuri could find her shoe first. They immediately flew off to start tearing the panels off the walls in search of the wayward shoe, with Yuri Usachov ultimately claiming the bag of Jello.
Cognizant of the mental impact of food, both good and bad, Lucid’s team paid close attention to her transmissions and interviews. In one interview she mentioned offhand that she missed M&M candies. Sure enough, on the next Progress resupply ship, a bunch of M&Ms were included. In fact, after landing, she was presented with a special box of M&Ms straight from the White House, presidential seal and all.
Other treats sent up on the Progress, among all the shelf-stable food and experiments, were some fresh tomatoes and onions. When they found them, the crew immediately stopped unpacking and gathered around to enjoy the simple pleasures of eating fresh picked vegetables. The cosmonauts also mentioned that one time some kind soul thought to send a watermelon up to an orbiting crew.. only to discover that watermelons do not tolerate the rigors of flying on rockets very well, creating a bit of a mess.
For Lucid, something else on board may have been even more important to her than food, and that was books. Shannon Lucid is a voracious reader. When asked what she wanted to do on Mir with her leisure time she said to just make sure there was plenty of reading material and she would be happy. Lucid even found a way to approximate the experience of curling up with a good book in weightlessness. Of course, without gravity, that normally comfy curl would require constant exertion. Not to be deterred, Lucid found some foam padding that had been used on some cargo and rolled it up, using tape to hold the rolls at specific angles. With one carefully shaped roll for her legs and one for her head, she could relax in a more normal reading position. Though she still had to hold the book open, which doesn’t sound like much but will actually tire your hand out after a while.
When asked what books to include on the resupply ship, Lucid left the task to her daughters. Unfortunately, she failed to consider that one of her daughters graduated from college with a degree in English. Combine that with a blanket request for lengthy and dense books, and Lucid accidentally signed herself up for book after book written by 19th century English authors. The books were fine but there’s only so much time one can spend in the 1800s, though Lucid did have fun imagining what those authors would have thought if they could see her reading their books now.
The books were a relaxing pastime except for one catastrophe that unfolded partway into the flight. Lucid was enjoying the ride in one of the books her daughter had picked up.. only to discover that it ended on a cliffhanger and the sequel was not onboard the spacecraft! She had to wait weeks until the next resupply ship delivered the sequel. And actually, since it was stored in an unexpected location she thought it had been forgotten had to endure a few days of harsh disappointment before finally getting her hands on the book. Seems to me like the book became a story all on its own!
Lucid’s reading experience made one thing abundantly clear to me. Between having to hold the book open, being limited to books selected by her family, and having to wait weeks to get her hands on the conclusion to a cliffhanger.. crew members on the International Space Station today, with their ebook readers and tablets don’t know how good they have it!
One aspect of day to day life that sort of surprised me was that up until the first Progress resupply ship arrived, there was no music on the station. Lucid had a portable cassette player with headphones, but that was it. At the crew’s request, an off the shelf boombox was included in the resupply. Yuri Usachov promptly mounted it to the wall near their dinner table in the base block module, hooked it into the station power, and started playing Ukrainian ballads. Lucid said the cosmonauts weren’t the biggest fans of her choice of music, but she was perfectly happy with the usual playlist of Russian and Ukrainian folk music.
Of course, the crew did more than eat Jello and wait for their next delivery of books and music. There was plenty of science to do. Everything from the standard pile of crystals to an interesting experiment studying the growth of quail embryos in weightlessness. A bunch of embryos were sent up on the shuttle and at regular intervals Lucid would pull one out and treat it with a chemical to freeze its progress for later study on the ground. Scientists actually found significantly more mutations in the space-flown embryos than the control group on the ground, likely from the radiation.
Most of the science was done in the brand new module, and last to be added to Mir: Priroda, Russian for “nature’. Priroda was supposed to already be in place before Lucid even arrived but was delayed until around a month after she launched. On April 23rd, 1996, Priroda lifted off atop a Proton rocket and began its autonomous approach to Mir.
Priroda’s approach was a little more anxiety-inducing because instead of solar panels, which would give indefinite time to figure out any problems, Priroda used a gigantic pile of batteries taken from old Soviet submarines. This would’ve been.. sort of weird but fine, except telemetry seemed to indicate that one of the batteries had a little uh oh and started a fire. Though it couldn’t be that bad cause the module was still going.
For the final approach, Commander Onufriyenko insisted that Lucid wait in the Soyuz in case something went wrong and there was a rapid depressurization. But surely such concern was overkill and nothing like that could happen on Mir, dot dot dot. Thankfully, nothing went wrong, and 49 hours after lifting off, Priroda slotted into Mir’s node, completing the space station. After carefully testing the atmosphere inside, looking for toxic byproducts of the fire, the crew were able to open the hatch. They then spent the next two days disassembling the racks holding the batteries, taking each battery out one at a time, putting caps on their terminals, and bagging them up for later disposal on a Progress.
Several months into the mission, Onufriyenko and Usachov learned that their mission was going to be extended by a month. The simple fact was that the Russian space agency was too broke to afford launching new rockets every few months, so they were going to use the maximum amount of time a Soyuz was qualified to stay on orbit: six months. This would have meant that Lucid would go home while her crewmates were still on board, but she soon learned she had a delay of her own. STS-79 needed to be brought to the VAB and fitted with a new set of SRBs, for reasons we’ll discuss when we get to that flight. This meant that instead of launching on July 31st, STS-79 would be grounded until at least mid-September. Weirdly enough, this actually marks a personal milestone for me. That’s because Lucid having to stay on Mir for a couple extra months is the first memory I have of a spaceflight event as it unfolded. It’s just a vague memory of seeing a news report on TV about it and being fascinated that someone was living off of the Earth for months at a time, but hey, memories have to start somewhere.
This episode has already sprawled well past the regular length, and while it’s easy for me to type this, I’m sure future me is feeling his throat burn, so I’m going to sort of fast forward through this next part. If you want to learn about the four EVAs, how to make a set of coveralls last six months, or why the Russians were filming a commercial for Pepsi, you’ll have to check out Shannon’s book or shoot me an email for other recommendations. It’s just too much to include here. On August 19th, the next Russian long duration crew arrived along with short duration European astronaut Claudie Haigneré and the crew hand-off began. In a moment reminiscent of her training, Lucid first met one of the new Russian crew members when the hatch was opened. They had never met on the ground. We’ll meet them ourselves on the next Mir episode. A couple of weeks after the new crew arrived, the hand-off was complete. Lucid said her goodbyes to her Russian colleagues, and Onufriyenko, Usachov, and Haigneré climbed into their Soyuz and flew through an uneventful reentry back to Earth.
After three weeks living with the new crew, who surely kept their “cosmic language” handbook close by, it was Lucid’s turn to head home. STS-79 launched rendezvoused, and docked with the Russian station. Lucid greeted her old friend and shuttle commander John Blaha and showed him around the station, setting him up for his own long duration stay.
To make things easier for Lucid, she would return on the shuttle down on the middeck in the recumbent position. Her seat was mounted with the back on the floor, and a middeck locker was cleared out so she could tuck her legs in there, keeping them elevated. Despite all that time off the planet, Lucid had no trouble walking through the hatch and into the waiting Crew Transport Vehicle. She was home, and with a new American spaceflight endurance record under her belt: 188 days.
Poetry is not really my thing. I’m happy for people who love it, but it’s not really my thing. So I was sort of surprised when a poem written by Lucid’s daughter and included in her book made an impact on me. I thought it would be a perfect way to close out the episode.
When I Gaze Up
Tonight, when you gaze down, you’ll see a thousand different lands. And on a hundred different shores you’ll see oceans reaching sand. But one small light will catch your eye, not allowing it to roam. For even from the spires of space, You can see the hearth of home.
Tonight, when I gaze up, I’ll see a thousand different stars, Each one a dream, a world unknown, a promise from afar. But only one will know my name; that one I strain to see. For only one, when I gaze up, is gazing down at me
Next time.. While Lucid was doing laps around the planet every 90 minutes, NASA welcomed the largest ever class of new astronauts. With 44 new people, it might be a little overwhelming. But if you take a look at the astronaut class group photo and look carefully in the back row, there’s a familiar face. Or should I say, a familiar voice. On May 1st, 1996, Astronaut Class 16 was selected, and friend of the show Dan Tani found himself wearing the blue flight suit. Next time, we’ll ask him how he came to be selected, what life is like as a newbie astronaut who hasn’t yet been assigned a flight, and we’ll learn a piece of advice Tani learned from the great John Young.
Ad Astra, catch you on the next pass