‘As Long As It’s Not a Hurricane’: 20 Years Since the Record-Setting Mission of Norm Thagard (Part 2)

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

Twenty years ago, this week, the first U.S. astronaut in history was launched in a non-U.S. spacecraft, from a non-U.S. nation, with a crew entirely composed of non-U.S. comrades. Four-time shuttle veteran Norm Thagard had spent more than a year training for NASA’s first long-duration “increment” to the Russian Mir space station and was destined to spend almost four months—a total of 115 days—in orbit, longer than any previous U.S. astronaut. In doing so, Thagard would soundly surpass the 84-day U.S. endurance record, set at the end of the final Skylab mission, back in February 1974, and his experience would lay the groundwork for dozens of his fellow Americans to embark on flights in excess of 100 days. His achievement is all the more important in this 20th anniversary month of his flight, for March 2015 will also see the launch of astronaut Scott Kelly on the United States’ first year-long mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

However, Thagard’s mission to Mir would not prove smooth-sailing, and, as described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, training in Russian systems, the Russian language, and experiencing life in the shattered post-Soviet economy had proven challenging for himself, his backup, astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, and the other NASA representatives despatched to the Star City center, outside Moscow. A large pressurized module, Spektr, was intended to carry the bulk of Thagard’s research equipment, and would serve as his living quarters, but the economic crisis—worsened by the October 1994 collapse of the ruble—had caused its launch to be delayed from February until May 1995, more than halfway through his mission.

The Spektr delays had already pushed back the launch of Soyuz TM-21, carrying Thagard and cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov, from 3 March, but NASA and the Russians eventually settled on the 14th. Early that morning, the three men suited up for launch and departed their crew quarters into the bitterly cold Kazakh morning. “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 subtropical Florida, Thagard was worried that the cold weather would scrub the launch. Gennadi Strekalov told him not to worry; “The colder the better,” he said. Thagard next pointed out that gale-force winds were whipping across Tyuratam. 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.

The interior of Mir's Spektr module, which served as Thagard's living quarters and research center. Photo Credit: NASA
The interior of Mir’s Spektr module, which served as Thagard’s living quarters and research center. Photo Credit: NASA

In traditional fashion, Dezhurov, the commander, symbolically requested permission to conduct the Soyuz TM-21 mission from the commanding general. Arriving at the base of the launch pad, the crew was faced with the gargantuan rocket which would deliver them into orbit. Unlike the United States, where all non-essential personnel were kept away from the launch pad, it surprised Thagard that he, Dezhurov, and Strekalov had to literally wade through a gaggle of people to reach the elevator which took them to the top of the rocket. “You’re literally brushing by them as you go through,” he told the NASA oral historian. As he ascended the steps, someone called his name in an American ascent; Thagard turned to respond and almost lost his grip. Composing himself, he waved back, then walked to the top of the steps and strode across to the elevator, which took the crew up to boarding level. Thagard was first to clamber through the side hatch of Soyuz TM-21’s orbital module, followed by Strekalov, who quickly moved into his couch on the left-hand side of the descent module. “He had to turn on electrical power,” recalled Thagard, “so Gennadi went in, and then I went in and then Veloga [Dezhurov] went in, and then, of course, you shut the hatch.” By this stage, about two hours remained before liftoff. Although Thagard and Strekalov both had windows on their respective sides of the cabin, they were covered by the rocket’s aerodynamic shroud, offering them no view of the titanic events which would soon engulf them as they left Earth.

In those two hours, however, there was little time to do anything other than the final tests for which they had trained. As Dezhurov and Strekalov busied themselves with running through their spacecraft’s myriad systems, Thagard took care of activating the radios and periodically switching the views of two on-board television cameras, one of which focused on himself and the second upon the two cosmonauts. In the final moments, internal avionics within the rocket were initiated and the on-board flight recorders were spooled-up to monitor the vehicle’s systems. At T-10 seconds, turbopumps on the core and strap-on boosters came to life. After confirmation that the engines were running at full power, the fueling tower was retracted, and at 9:11 a.m. Moscow Time, on 14 March 1995, the joint U.S.-Russian crew of Soyuz TM-21 speared into the cold Tyuratam sky.

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

“It’s very similar to what the shuttle feels like,” remembered Thagard of the adrenaline-charged ride into orbit, “not as much noise, not as much vibration, but similar.” In making the flight, he became the first American in history to ride a Russian rocket and spacecraft into orbit. From his perspective, the staccato crackle of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), which characterised first-stage flight on the shuttle, was not present with the Soyuz, which was far less noisy. On the other hand, second-stage flight on the shuttle, powered only by the three liquid-fueled main engines, felt to Thagard like a smooth electric ride, whereas aboard the Soyuz the noise and vibration remained.

Rising rapidly, the vehicle exceeded 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of liftoff, during which time the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress (known as “Max Q”) impacted its airframe. At T+118 seconds, at an altitude of about 28 miles (45 km), the four strap-on boosters exhausted their liquid oxygen and RP-1 and were jettisoned, leaving the central core and its single engine to continue the ascent. By two minutes into the flight, the rocket was traveling at over 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h). The payload shroud and escape tower were jettisoned shortly afterwards, and, some four minutes and 50 seconds after leaving Tyuratam, the core stage separated at an altitude of 105 miles (170 km) and the single engine of the third stage ignited to boost Soyuz TM-21 to a velocity in excess of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the point of third stage separation, about nine minutes into the flight, the vehicle was in space, describing an orbit of 118 x 136 miles (190 x 220 km), inclined 51.65 degrees to the equator.

“The main difference at the end was that when the shuttle main engines cut off, they just cut off,” said Thagard. “It’s not a huge, emphatic thing, but when the main engines cut off on the Soyuz it was very emphatic, almost like a ‘clang’. One possible explanation I’ve been told 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.” With the aerodynamic shroud gone, Thagard was greeted by his first glimpse of Earth and, by craning his neck, he could just see one of Soyuz TM-21’s twin solar arrays.

On the ground, at Tyuratam, the launch had indeed been memorable, but for other reasons. It had been a cold day at the cosmodrome and gale-force winds had directed the rocket’s exhaust across the launch pad, though not into the flame trench, and had started a fire which caused damage to some ground support equipment and cables. No injuries were reported, but the windy conditions intensified the damage by tearing up slabs of melted asphalt in the vicinity of the launch complex.

Norm Thagard sleeps aboard Mir during his four-month expedition. Photo Credit: NASA
Norm Thagard sleeps aboard Mir during his four-month expedition. Photo Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, in low-Earth orbit, Dezhurov, Strekalov, and Thagard were bound for a two-day rendezvous to reach Mir. Three hours after reaching orbit, the crew performed the first of two maneuvering system burns to raise their orbit slightly, and, early on 15 March, executed a small “phasing” burn and two further rendezvous burns to adjust their altitude to match that of the space station itself. During those two days, the crew was confined to the cramped descent and orbital modules of the Soyuz, and, although there were rudimentary toilet facilities, the complete lack of privacy had led many cosmonauts to avoid responding to the need “to go” for as long as possible. The toilet, said Thagard, was “a funnel-like affair that’s attached with a flexible tube to the structure,” but stressed that “folks usually tried to get themselves in a position so they don’t have to defecate while they’re on the Soyuz.” Most spacefarers took enemas before launch, as Thagard did, and he noticed that the probability of suffering space sickness was reduced aboard the more confined Russian craft.

Under Vladimir Dezhurov’s deft control, Soyuz TM-21 docked perfectly at the aft longitudinal port of Mir’s Kvant-1 module at 10:45:26 a.m. Moscow Time on 16 March, a little over 49 hours into the mission. From his position, Thagard described the “non-violent” docking as carrying the same minor punch as backing a car into a loading bay and impacting a set of rubberized cushions—“kind of a little bump, but nothing awesome, nothing scary.” Less than two hours later, following customary pressurization and leak checks, the hatches between Soyuz TM-21 and Mir were opened and the newcomers were engulfed in bear hugs from the resident crew of Alexander Viktorenko, Yelena Kondakova, and Valeri Polyakov. In a traditional Russian welcome, Kondakova carried a tray with several packages of bread and salt affixed in place with Velcro. A new record had been set with this mission, for in addition to the six people on Mir, another seven souls orbited independently aboard Shuttle Endeavour, flying STS-67, marking the first time in history that as many as 13 individuals were in space at the same time. In fact, Thagard and STS-67 commander Steve Oswald had flown together three years previously, and on 16 March, shortly after arriving at Mir, NASA’s first “cosmonaut” spoke to his former crewmate via radio link.

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 in late-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 soundly surpassed 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 on 5 July 1996.

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

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 would have 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 another American, Suni Williams. 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 two long-duration space station tours, accumulating almost 377 days in orbit by the time her second tour ended in April 2008. At the time of writing, Whitson remains, by far, the most experienced female spacefarer of all time, an accomplishment she is expected to advance yet further in 2016-2017 when she embarks on another six-month ISS mission.

With regard to the male U.S. astronauts, the records would fall equally rapidly, though in comparison to Russia’s highly seasoned corps of long-duration fliers, it has been on few occasions that Americans have actually broken into the Top Twenty most experienced spacefarers of all time. Scott Kelly is expected to do so when he concludes his year-long mission, but even his vast reservoir of flight experience—he already has 180 days’ worth of space-time under his belt from three prior missions—will only establish him near the bottom of the Top Twenty. Nevertheless, NASA astronauts have broken important ground, with Mike Lopez-Alegria securing the longest single U.S. mission to date in April 2007, when he returned from the ISS after 215 days in space. And four astronauts have spent a cumulative total of more than one year in orbit: Mike Fincke with 381 days, Peggy Whitson with 377 days, Mike Foale with almost 374 days, and Don Pettit with over 369 days.

And when Kelly launches from Baikonur in a few days’ time, he will become only the sixth American in history to embark on a second long-duration mission. By the time he returns from space in March 2016, Kelly will have accrued more than 540 days in orbit, almost four times the total experience of Thagard. Yet the experience of Thagard, two decades ago, truly paved the way for NASA and the United States to move from a shuttle-era mentality of flying regular, short-duration missions to actually living in space on a semi-permanent and ultimately permanent basis. That basis will surely pay dividends as Americans seek to expand their presence beyond low-Earth orbit in the decades to come.



This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first spacewalk by Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and how his achievement enabled increasingly more complex endeavors, from the first steps on the Moon to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS).



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