Of all the NASA astronauts who have flown long-duration space missions—longer than a month or so—very few have moved from the commander’s or pilot’s seat of a space shuttle and rotated into a lengthy stay aboard an Earth-circling space station. In fact, from the dawn of the International Space Station (ISS) era, only six veteran shuttle commanders or pilots have gone on to spend several months in orbit. Most recent among them was Scott Kelly, who wrapped up the United States’ first year-long mission in March. Yet the first person to do so was completing his first few days aboard Russia’s Mir space station, exactly 20 years ago, this week. Veteran astronaut John Blaha might have seemed an unlikely candidate for a long-duration space mission, but in words he shared with this author, it had long been his intention to fly aboard a space station before he retired.
By the mid-1990s, Blaha had flown four shuttle flights, two in the pilot’s seat and a further two as commander, and at this stage a full two decades had passed since the United States’ last long-duration space station mission, aboard Skylab. That changed with the gradual thawing of relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which led to Russia’s inclusion in the fledgling ISS program and the planning of a series of missions—dubbed “Phase 1”—which would see cosmonauts flying on the shuttle and astronauts for lengthy spells aboard Mir. The first American to complete a long-duration mission to Mir was Norm Thagard, who launched aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in March 1995 and returned to Earth four months later aboard Shuttle Atlantis. In spending 115 days in orbit, Thagard significantly exceeded the empirical U.S. single-mission endurance record of 84 days.
Yet it was always clear that Thagard’s flight was the first of several long-duration stays aboard Mir. As early as 1992, NASA and the newly-formed Russian Space Agency were deep into negotiations to “rotate” other astronauts into Mir crews, via visiting shuttle missions, and maintain a continuous U.S. presence in orbit for more than a year. At first, it seemed that Thagard’s backup, veteran shuttle flyer Bonnie Dunbar, might remain aboard Mir after Atlantis’ departure on STS-71, but a combination of factors meant that the station would be maxed-out in terms of crew members in the fall of 1995. Another early plan was to fly veteran shuttle pilot Bill Readdy for a month and bring him home aboard a Soyuz. Such a plan made a measure of practical sense, for NASA was investigating the use of Soyuz as an Assured Crew Return Vehicle (ACRV) for Space Station Freedom. By launching Thagard by Soyuz and landing Readdy by the same means, first-hand experience could be gained by seasoned astronauts.
As circumstances transpired, Readdy’s mission did not take place and he wound up commanding one of the early shuttle-Mir docking flights. Meanwhile, in November 1994, veteran astronauts Blaha and Shannon Lucid were formally assigned to train for the second of “at least four” long-duration flights to Mir. The pair had each flown four shuttle missions and knew each other well. Three months later, they arrived at the cosmonauts’ training center of Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to commence formal training. At the end of March 1995, NASA announced that Lucid would train for a five-month stay aboard Mir from March-August 1996, with Blaha backing her up.
At the same time, two other veteran astronauts entered training and in late May 1995 arrived at Star City. Under original plans, Jerry Linenger would fly the next long-duration mission from August-December 1996, backed by Scott Parazynski. It was then expected that Blaha would fly from December 1996 through May 1997, with Parazynski replacing him for five months, returning to Earth aboard shuttle Atlantis on STS-86 in October 1997. It was stressed at the time that STS-86 was “unlikely” to carry another NASA astronaut to Mir, because ISS construction was due to begin in December 1997, with permanent human habitation anticipated by mid-1998.
In a sense, Blaha’s assignment made him the “odd-one out,” for Lucid, Linenger, and Parazynski—and, indeed, Thagard—possessed a medical or biomedical background, all of them PhDs or MDs. Certainly, NASA sought medically qualified astronauts for the Mir flights, which would include a sizable medical research component, and the Russians required that each trainee must have previous spaceflight experience. In the summer of 1995, another astronaut, Wendy Lawrence, was named at Blaha’s backup, but was swiftly removed from training when it became apparent that was too short in stature to comfortably occupy the Soyuz spacecraft in the event of an emergency return to Earth. At about the same time, Parazynski was also removed, since he was too tall, and both were later replaced by astronauts Jim Voss and Mike Foale.
Eventually, the sequence in which the astronauts would fly also changed. The idea of a given astronaut backing up one mission, skipping the next, and serving as prime crew member for the third was part of the training process from the outset. The removal of Lawrence and Parazynski in the fall of 1995, coupled with a distinct shortage of suitable volunteers in NASA’s astronaut office, put paid to this idea. The Russians disliked the notion of “consecutive” assignments, but there existed little choice. Moreover, Blaha and Linenger’s increments were switched, with Blaha launched to directly replace Lucid. “John and I switched positions in the sequence,” Linenger recalled in his memoir, Off the Planet, “in order for me to do a spacewalk.”
Although both Lucid and Blaha were assigned to their own respective Mir crews, they actually spent much of their early training together. “We sat in a classroom together,” Lucid told the NASA oral historian. “It was just the two of us and an instructor for whatever classroom it was. We didn’t interface with anybody else. Only toward the end did we do just a very few sims with the Russian crew; we got in the Soyuz and went through a sim, but it was all very minimal.” The primary focus of their training was upon learning conversational and technical Russian and mastering the U.S. research payloads for their missions.
As well as their Russian crewmates, Lucid and Blaha were also assigned to two discrete shuttle crews: one which would transport them to Mir and a second which would bring them back to Earth from Mir. In Blaha’s case, he would launch as “Mission Specialist Four” on STS-79, commanded by Bill Readdy, and would return as “Mission Specialist Four” on STS-81, commanded by one of his old crewmates, Mike Baker. In his NASA oral history, Blaha described himself, self-deprecatingly, as “a piece of luggage.” This carried the potential for a strange relationship, since he had far more up-front shuttle experience—both from a piloting and commanding perspective—than any of his STS-79 or STS-81 crewmates.
But Readdy proved charming in that he fully integrated Blaha into the STS-79 crew. “He took us in,” he remembered, “even though we were only with the crew for about three weeks prior to launch and made us feel like we were just part of the crew with everything that happened. I didn’t really deserve anything, since I hadn’t done anything.” Jokingly, Blaha described himself as “worse than a payload specialist”—hierarchically the lowest-ranking member of a shuttle crew—and more than once stressed the “piece of luggage” comparison. By the late summer of 1996, he had not been directly involved with shuttle operations for more than 2.5 years.
However, it continued to fascinate him, and during his “up” and “down” flights, Blaha was keen to play an active role, supporting his crewmates as much as possible, even at the level of collecting the garbage and cleaning up the middeck. Before launching on STS-79 in September 1996, Blaha turned to his crewmate Jay Apt. “Jay,” he said, “you know I really don’t know too much about what I’m supposed to do down here, because I’ve never been on the middeck.”
“Don’t worry about it, John,” replied Apt, who was embarking on his fourth shuttle mission. “I’ll take you through everything you need to do as soon as we get on-orbit.”
On the morning of 16 September 1996, a few weeks after his 54th birthday, Blaha steeled himself for his fifth launch into space. Seated not aboard the shuttle’s flight deck, but within the darkened confines of its middeck, he was ready for a mission which would last 10 times longer than any of his previous missions and which would challenge him in ways that he could never have foreseen.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.