‘To Live Like Russians’: 20 Years Since the Record-Setting Mission of Norm Thagard (Part 1)

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
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. Only two weeks ago, on 3 March, astronaut Terry Virts proudly tweeted news of his own passage through the magical “100 Days” of his six-month incumbency of the International Space Station (ISS). Although greatly surpassed by many of Russia’s cosmonauts, the long-flying U.S. astronauts have established empirical space endurance records for female spacefarers, and, with Scott Kelly expected to launch in two weeks’ time on the first year-long ISS mission, it seems that Americans will continue to press this experience envelope.

Yet 20 years ago, this week, the longest period of time a U.S. astronaut had spent in space on a single mission was 84 days, set more than two decades earlier, in February 1974, by the final Skylab crew, and on 14 March 1995 four-time shuttle astronaut Norm Thagard was embarking on wholly new territory by signing up not only for a long-duration flight … but for a long-duration flight with the United States’ old enemy, Russia. Thagard’s four-month stay aboard the Mir space station in March-July 1995 would make enormous inroads into increasing NASA’s awareness of long-term exposure to the space environment from a physical and psychological perspective, as well as in terms of work schedules and productivity.

For Thagard, selection in February 1994 to fly the first NASA “increment” to Mir was a prize he had sought for several years. In the summer of 1991, as he was preparing to fly his fourth shuttle mission, STS-42, he heard about a U.S.-Russian agreement, which would involve a long-duration flight to the Russian space station. A year later, Thagard was chatting with fellow astronaut Dave Hilmers about what might entice them to remain at NASA; Hilmers had already accepted a place at medical school, but Thagard was intrigued by the possibility of embarking on a mission with the Russians. His mind was made up when Chief Astronaut Dan Brandenstein asked him, point-blank, if he would fly. Thagard’s response was immediate: “Absolutely!”

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

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!”

From July through December, Thagard and NASA flight surgeon Dave Ward worked on learning the basics of the Russian language, which, although not “total immersion,” was “pretty intensive” and lasted eight hours per day, for five days each week. At this time, Thagard’s name for the Mir mission had not yet been formally announced, but his candidacy was known. In August 1993, Flight International reported that his seat was “being challenged” by fellow astronaut Bill Shepherd—recently appointed as Assistant Deputy Administrator (Technical) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and deeply involved in the Freedom redesign effort—with the name of physician-astronaut Drew Gaffney also linked to the flight. On 3 February 1994, NASA formally announced Thagard’s selection, and, bowing to Russian pressure, also assigned a backup crew member in the form of veteran shuttle astronaut Bonnie Dunbar. 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 two Russian cosmonauts aboard Soyuz TM-21 in March 1995.

In her own NASA oral history, Dunbar remembered being approached by Leestma in December 1993. Despite her reservations about learning Russian, he knew that she had mastered German during training for a previous mission, but the assignment was met with some surprise by Thagard. Unlike himself and a handful of other astronauts—including Shannon Lucid and Story Musgrave—Dunbar had not volunteered for the Russian language classes at JSC. “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 fellow astronaut Ken Cameron as the first Director of Operations in Russia (DOR) headed to a closeted country which had remained largely screened from outsiders for many years.

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
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

At the same time, “Team Zero,” the first of 10 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, meaning that 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 went 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 Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov, Dunbar with Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin—and started to learn and master Mir and Soyuz-TM systems.

Living in Russia was far more spartan than the United States. Thagard and Dunbar were given accommodation in a high-rise block within 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 about once per week. Dunbar, meanwhile, was embraced by the women of Star City, who invited her into their homes for tea and showed her around the military complex. The mid-1990s were an exceptionally difficult time in Russia, as the fragmented nation struggled to turn away from the old Soviet Union and move toward a more plural system of democracy. “The economy was extremely poor,” recalled Dunbar. 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.

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
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

Funding took two months to arrive between JSC in Houston and Star City, since it had to be funneled through NASA Headquarters, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. embassies in Paris and Moscow, before it ended up (in cash) in the hands of Ken 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, Ken 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, with more than a year of technical, language, and cultural training thus completed, 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 Tyuratam 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, then added that none of it was brought back from Mir. …


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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  1. I worked these missions and it was very exciting – talking daily to people who had very recently been our enemies. Unfortunately, NASA got started by accepting Russian assurances, Russian promises, etc etc etc. So our folks were poorly supported, they flew with little support, we survived a Mir fire and collision and poorly planned EVAs and so many other things. We accepted the cavalier Russian attitude towards safety. NASA allowed Russia to take advantage of the U.S. at so many events. We have carried so much of that over into ISS where Russia promises things that never are delivered, Russia fails to tell us important facts, etc etc.

    The U.S. now looks back on Apollo as a tremendous achievement – that was followed by a tremendous failure to follow through. The U.S. looks back on Skylab as a tremendous achievement – that was followed by a tremendous failure to follow through. Shuttle was a tremendous achievement – that was followed by a tremendous failure to follow through. NASA has been given budgets that were sufficient to do marvelous things but had added late requirements, replanned, interfered, accepted promises at face value. They have wrecked budgets and taken safety for granted.

    We will look back on ISS as a tremendous achievement – that was repeatedly compromised due to a needless desire to please the Russians.

  2. 40 years of Low Earth Orbit space stations is enough. The lesson is that Earth radiation and gravity are required for long duration space missions. There are no showstoppers to providing an Earth environment except a lack of that single resource that has constantly limited NASA since the end of Apollo- funding.

    A tether system can provide artificial Earth gravity. Water derived from lunar ice can provide the space radiation shielding required. The several thousand tons of space station can be assembled in lunar orbit using SLS empty upper stages (wet workshops). Human beings evolved in Earth gravity and near sea level radiation and playing the too little/too much exposure game can only end in failure.

    Fully shielded spinning lunar space stations need only a propulsion system to turn them into spaceships. The mass of shielding and weight of structure make chemical propulsion essentially useless for deep space missions. Lunar orbit being outside the Earth’s magnetosphere makes the assembling and test firing of nuclear systems practical.

  3. Was Story Musgrave (mentioned in this fascinating article) ever seriously considered for the long-duration Mir missions? During one of the STS-80 pre-flight interviews he said: “I would have loved to gone to Mir”.

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