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To Live Like Russians: Remembering America’s Long Mission to Mir, 25 Years On (Part 1)
By Ben Evans, on March 22nd, 2020


Norm Thagard and Bonnie Dunbar participate in Soyuz-TM training in October 1994. Photo Credit: NASA

In March 2020, it seems inconceivable to think of U.S. astronauts being totally unaccustomed to long-duration spaceflight. Over the past quarter-century, no fewer than 67 Americans—from civilian medical doctors to biochemists and engineers to physicists, and from Army and Coast Guard officers to Air Force test pilots and Naval aviators—have embarked on flights to Russia’s Mir space station or the International Space Station (ISS), which approached or exceeded the magical 100 days in space.

Six have flown two long-duration flights, whilst a couple have chalked up three marathon missions. Four years ago this very month, Scott Kelly secured a record for the longest singular spaceflight by an American male, at 340 days, whilst only last month Christina Koch logged 328 days to set a similar history-making benchmark for American (and all) females.



Scott Kelly’s 2016 record for the longest single space flight ever undertaken by a U.S. male astronaut saw him stand on the shoulders of Norm Thagard, whose pioneering voyage to Mir laid the groundwork for long-duration living off Earth. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Yet 25 years ago, this month, the longest period a U.S. astronaut had spent in space on one mission was 84 days, set back in the 1970s by the final Skylab crew. And on 14 March 1995, veteran shuttle flyer Norm Thagard embarked into wholly new territory by not only flying a long-duration flight, but a long-duration flight with the United States’ old enemy, Russia. His four-month stay aboard the Mir space station would make huge inroads into understanding the effects of long-term exposure to the microgravity environment from a physical and psychological perspective, as well as in terms of work scheduling and flexibility. It also afforded Thagard the opportunity to chat to a former shuttle crewmate.

For Thagard, selection in February 1994 to fly the first of several multi-month NASA “increments” to Mir was a prize he had sought for several years. Intrigued by the possibility of missions with the Russians, his mind was made up when Chief Astronaut Dan Brandenstein asked him, point-blank, if he would fly the first one. Thagard’s response was immediate: “Absolutely!”



Thagard (right) and Soyuz TM-21 Commander Vladimir Dezhurov are pictured during training in the mockup of Mir’s base block at Star City. Photo Credit: NASA

Dunbar had been approached by Leestma in December 1993. Despite her reservations about learning Russian, she had mastered German during training for a previous mission, but the assignment was met with some surprise by Thagard, since Dunbar had not volunteered for the Russian language classes. “It’s bad policy to send people over there to Russia,” Thagard recalled, years later, “who don’t have some experience in Russian before they get there.” Nevertheless, in late February, Thagard, Dunbar, a pair of NASA flight surgeons and veteran shuttle commander Ken Cameron as NASA’s first director of operations in Russia headed to a closeted country which had remained screened from outsiders for decades.

Initially, there would be no backup crew member, and Thagard set to work teaching himself Russian, before the astronaut office brought in a language instructor for him in October 1992. Shortly thereafter, he accompanied Don Puddy, then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, on a fact-finding mission to Russia to discuss using the Soyuz-TM spacecraft as an Assured Crew Return Vehicle (ACRV) for the U.S.-led Space Station Freedom program. Several months later, in the summer of 1993, Puddy’s successor, Dave Leestma, sent Thagard to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., for more in-depth instruction. “Unfortunately, the funds were limited,” Thagard told a NASA oral historian, “and I actually wound up signing shared-cost orders, meaning that while the post-diem rate out at Monterey was $34 per day, plus transportation, I wound up with $10 per day and no transportation! So I wound up driving my own car out there!”



Last month, Christina Koch wrapped up a 328-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). In doing so, she secured a new record for the longest single space voyage ever undertaken by a woman. Photo Credit: NASA

From July through December 1993, Thagard and NASA flight surgeon Dave Ward learned the basics of the Russian language, which, although not “total immersion”, was “pretty intensive”. In early 1994, NASA formally announced Thagard’s selection, and, bowing to Russian pressure, assigned veteran astronaut Bonnie Dunbar as his backup. They would both embark on a year of preparations at the Star City training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, in readiness for launch with Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov aboard Soyuz TM-21 in March 1995.

At the same time, “Team Zero,” the first of ten U.S.-Russian working groups, met to begin mission planning, cargo and scheduling, public affairs, safety, operations, science, training, integration, and other issues. It was expected that NASA astronauts would utilize Russia’s Spektr module for their living quarters and research. This 44,000-pound (20,000-kg) module would house 2,490 pounds (1,130 kg) of scientific equipment for Thagard’s mission, but its launch and docking at Mir had been repeatedly delayed. Hopes of sending it aloft in February 1995 proved fruitless, and the October 1994 collapse of the ruble forced the Russians to advise NASA that launch dates for Spektr and a follow-on module, Priroda, could not be guaranteed. A new launch date of 10 May was tentatively set for Spektr. As such, Thagard would spend more than half of his long-duration mission without much of the equipment that he needed for his research program.

Shortly after their arrival, Thagard and Dunbar were put through winter survival training in the woods outside Star City. A simulated Soyuz spacecraft was immersed in hot water, then plopped into the snow in the middle of the forest and they were left alone for 48 hours to build a temporary shelter, don survival gear, chop wood and construct fires, just as they would be expected to do in the dire event that the Soyuz landed far from civilization. By November 1994, they began to function as members of their respective crews—Thagard with Dezhurov and Strekalov, Dunbar withcosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin—and started to learn and master Mir and Soyuz-TM systems.



Video Credit: AP Archive

Living in Russia was more spartan than the United States. Thagard and Dunbar were given accommodation in a high-rise block at Star City. “It was a three-bedroom apartment,” Thagard recalled. “It had new furniture. They had gone to the trouble of doing that and I thought the apartment was fine, even by U.S. standards. It wasn’t a luxury apartment, but by Russian standards it certainly was.” The astronauts were assigned drivers, but frequently had to request them a day or two in advance, which left Thagard making the journey into Moscow only once per week. Dunbar, meanwhile, was embraced by the women of Star City, who invited her to their homes for tea. The mid-1990s were an exceptionally difficult time in Russia. At Star City, there were no fresh vegetables on site, which necessitated journeys into Moscow every Saturday to visit the U.S. Embassy to buy a newspaper or to visit one of the handful of department stores which were springing up in the capital in order to buy food and essentials. In their apartments, they had Russian televisions with just one channel, no heating for weeks at a time, telephones which did not dial long-distance and no tumble dryers, so they had to hang laundry over the bathtubs.

Funding from the United States took two months to arrive, since it had to be funneled through NASA Headquarters, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. embassies in Paris and Moscow, before ending up (in cash) in the hands of Cameron for distribution to his team. Shipments of the astronauts’ own items from home, including clothes, irons and ironing boards, were notoriously slow to arrive, and since the arrangement between Russia and the United States was strictly quid pro quo, the astronauts were told in no uncertain terms that they should learn to “live like Russians”. On one occasion, Cameron got hold of some margarita mix and the three astronauts watched videos and ate popcorn as Thagard’s noisy washer breakdanced its way across the bathroom and dislodged the sink from the wall. “That was our entertainment,” said Dunbar, “for several weeks.”

Late in February 1995, it was formally announced that Dezhurov, Strekalov and Thagard had passed their required tests and were declared ready for launch. They flew from Star City to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to be quarantined. The prime crew threw a party for their support staff and bought supplies, including a couple of cases of cognac. Not all of the cognac was consumed and the cosmonauts decanted it into liter-sized plastic bottles, labeled them with “SOK”, the Russian word for “juice”, and had them loaded aboard Soyuz TM-21. “So we launched with quite a lot of cognac on the Soyuz,” Thagard recalled. Oddly, however, he noted that none of it was brought back from Mir…


Source: https://www.americaspace.com/2020/03/22/to-live-like-russians-remembering-americas-long-mission-to-mir-25-years-on-part-1/#more-111793
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To Live With Russians: Remembering America’s Long Mission to Mir, 25 Years On (Part 2)
By Ben Evans, on March 30th, 2020


U.S. astronaut Norm Thagard sleeps aboard Mir, during his lengthy voyage. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty-five years ago, this month, the first U.S. astronaut in history was launched aboard a non-U.S. spacecraft, atop a non-U.S. rocket, from a non-U.S. nation, with a crew entirely composed of non-U.S. comrades. Four-time Space Shuttle flyer Dr. Norm Thagard had spent more than a year training for NASA’s first long-duration “increment” to the Russian Mir space station and in doing so would spend nearly four months—a total of 115 days—in orbit, soundly surpassing the previous U.S. endurance record set at the end of the final Skylab mission in early 1974.


The prime and backup crews for the first U.S. long-duration mission since the Skylab era. Front row (from left) are Norm Thagard, Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov. Back row (from left) are Nikolai Budarin, Bonnie Dunbar and Anatoli Solovyov. Photo Credit: NASA

Thagard’s experience would lay the groundwork for dozens of his fellow Americans to embark on more ambitious space voyages, lasting far in excess of 100 days. Indeed, March 2020 also marks four years since Scott Kelly set a U.S. single-mission endurance record of 340 days in space and only last month Christina Koch returned from the International Space Station (ISS) after 328 days, the longest-ever spaceflight by a woman.

But Thagard’s mission to Mir did not prove entirely smooth-sailing and, as detailed last weekend by AmericaSpace, training in Russian systems, language and life in the shattered post-Soviet economy was challenging for himself, his backup Bonnie Dunbar and the NASA delegation dispatched to the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow. A large pressurized module, Spektr (“Spectrum”), was planned to carry most of Thagard’s research equipment and would provide his living quarters aboard Mir, but the economic crisis and the October 1994 collapse of the ruble caused its launch to be delayed from February to May 1995, more than halfway through his three-month mission.



Soyuz TM-21 roars into orbit on 14 March 1995, bound for Mir and carrying the first U.S. “cosmonaut”. Photo Credit: NASA

Early on 14 March, Thagard and his Russian crewmates—four-time veteran cosmonaut Gennadi Strekalov and “rookie” commander Vladimir Dezhurov—suited up at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, bade farewell to their loved ones and were bussed out to the launch pad and their waiting Soyuz TM-21 spacecraft. “It was below freezing,” said Thagard, “and there was quite a strong wind blowing and it was the only time in my life when I was actually glad I had a pressure suit on, because those things are usually hot and uncomfortable, especially if you start moving around in them. Yet it was just perfect for that day.”

Having launched previously from Florida, Thagard wondered if the cold weather would prompt a scrub, but Strekalov told him not to worry. “The colder the better” was his reply. Thagard next pointed out that gale-force winds were whipping across the desolate Kazakh steppe. Strekalov grinned. All would be fine, he said, “as long as it’s not a hurricane!” Ironically, “Hurricane”, or the Russian word Uragan, was Soyuz TM-21’s radio callsign.



Twenty-five years ago, Norm Thagard became the first U.S. astronaut to board Russia’s Mir space station. Video Credit: AP Archive

Launch occurred at 9:11 a.m. Moscow Time and for Thagard there were similarities and differences compared to his previous shuttle ascents. On the one hand, the Soyuz carried little of the growling staccato crackle of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), but whereas the shuttle’s ride to space quietened down into a smooth “electric ride” during second-stage flight, on the Russian vehicle the noise and intense vibration remained acute. But when the Soyuz rocket cut off and orbital flight was attained, the instant was accompanied by something “very emphatic”, which Thagardlikened to a “clang”, quite distinct from the shuttle’s three main engines. “One possible explanation I’ve been told,” he said later, “is that the shuttle throttles back, so it’s at 65 percent when the main engines cut off, whereas the Soyuz third-stage engine is at full-bore when it cuts off.”

For the next two days, Thagard, Strekalov and Dezhurovwere confined to Soyuz TM-21’s cramped descent and orbital modules as they headed for Mir. They docked smoothly at the aft longitudinal port of the Kvant (“Quantum”) module on 16 March and Thagard compared the moment of impact as carrying the same minor punch as backing a car into a loading bay and hitting a set of rubberized cushions. After customary pressurization and leak checks, the hatches were opened and the newcomers were welcomed aboard Mir by the resident crew of Aleksandr Viktorenko, the first female long-duration flyer Yelena Kondakova and Valeri Polyakov, the latter of whom was coming to the end of a record-setting 14 months in space. In a traditional Russian welcome, Kondakova brought bread and salt.

And there was another record being set elsewhere in orbit, for shuttle Endeavour was coming to the end of a 16-day astronomy mission, the commander of which happened to be one of Thagard’s former crewmates. Steve Oswald had been the pilot on Thagard’s STS-42 flight in January 1992 and the pair were clearly delighted to share a unique ship-to-ship radio communications linkup.

“Dr. Thagard, I presume?” Oswald playfully quipped. “I was wondering how your English was by now, Normie, but it sounds like you haven’t forgotten a thing.”

“You know, I figured if we were ever in orbit again, we’d probably be on the same spacecraft,” replied Thagard, wistfully. “I guess I was wrong!”



Gennadi Strekalov (left) and Vladimir Dezhurov are pictured at Mir’s main command post in the base block. Photo Credit: NASA

A week later, Viktorenko, Kondakova and Polyakov returned to Earth aboard their Soyuz TM-20 spacecraft, leaving Dezhurov, Strekalov and Thagard aboard the space station until the arrival of the first shuttle/Mir docking mission, then planned for launch late in May 1995. As circumstances transpired, the shuttle would be delayed until late June, and by the time Thagard and his Russian crewmates eventually returned to Earth on 7 July they would have accrued no fewer than 115 days in orbit. In doing so, Thagard exceeded the 84-day record of the final Skylab crew, and—when added to his 25 cumulative days from four previous shuttle flights—he became the most experienced U.S. astronaut in history, with a combined 140 days in space. It was a record that he would hold for almost a year, until fellow astronaut Shannon Lucid eclipsed his career total in 5 July 1996.

As the 20th century ended and the new millennium dawned, those records would fall like ninepins for the United States. Not only did Lucid surpass Thagard’s achievement, but by the time she returned to Earth after 188 days in September 1996 she had established a new single-mission endurance record for female spacefarers, which would endure for more than a decade, until June 2007, and would then be broken by SuniWilliams. This accomplishment would itself be exceeded by Peggy Whitson—later to serve as Chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office—who became the first woman to serve three long-duration space station tours, accumulating over 665 days in orbit by the time her third expedition ended in September 2017. At the time of writing, Whitson remains, by far, the most experienced woman spacefarer of all time, although last month she lost the record for the longest single female mission to Christina Koch.



Twenty years ago, this week, NASA astronaut Norm Thagard embarked on the United States’ first long-duration space station expedition in more than two decades. Photo Credit: NASA

The records fell similarly quickly for the male U.S. astronauts, too, although in comparison with Russia’s highly seasoned corps of long-duration cosmonauts there are few Americans on the list of the Top Twenty most experienced spacefarers. At present, only Peggy Whitson and Jeff Williams—both veterans of three ISS tours apiece—sit within that hallowed list, each of whose members has accrued over 500 days in space.

In March 2016, Scott Kelly set a record for the longest single mission by a U.S. male astronaut at 340 days. At first glance, these enormous numbers seem to overshadow Thagard’s 115-day mission to Mir all those years ago. But it was his pioneering flight which paved to moving from a shuttle-centered focus of regular, short-duration missions to actually living and working in space for long periods. And that will surely pay dividends as America seeks to expand its human presence beyond Earth and outward into the cosmos.


Source: https://www.americaspace.com/2020/03/30/to-live-with-russians-remembering-americas-long-mission-to-mir-25-years-on-part-2/#more-111853
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‘To Live Like Russians’: 20 Years Since the Record-Setting Mission of Norm Thagard (Part 1)
by Ben Evans July 14, 2015 [AS]


Twenty years ago, this week, NASA astronaut Norm Thagard embarked on the United States’ first long-duration space station expedition in more than two decades. Photo Credit: NASA

Today, in 2015, it seems hard to imagine U.S. astronauts being totally unaccustomed to long-duration spaceflight. Over the past two decades, around 50 Americans—from civilian medical doctors to biochemists and engineers to physicists, and from Army and Coast Guard officers to Air Force test pilots and Naval aviators—have embarked on missions in excess of 100 days in length.
https://www.americaspace.com/2015/03/14/to-live-like-russians-20-years-since-the-record-setting-mission-of-norm-thagard-part-1/

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‘As Long As It’s Not a Hurricane’: 20 Years Since the Record-Setting Mission of Norm Thagard (Part 2)
by Ben Evans July 15, 2015 [AS]


Norm Thagard and Bonnie Dunbar participate in Soyuz-TM training in October 1994. Photo Credit: NASA

https://www.americaspace.com/2015/03/15/to-be-reasonably-busy-20-years-since-the-record-setting-mission-of-norm-thagard-part-2/

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