“ … And liftoff of Atlantis on the fourth flight to dock with the Russian Space Station … ”
It was 4:54 a.m. EDT on 16 September 1996, a little more than 20 years ago, that Space Shuttle Atlantis roared into the night to begin STS-79, carrying veteran astronaut John Blaha—the third American to undertake a long-duration mission to Russia’s Mir orbital station—and his five NASA crewmates. As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace history article, STS-79 Commander Bill Readdy, Pilot Terry Wilcutt, and Mission Specialists Jay Apt, Tom Akers, and Carl Walz were tasked with exchanging Blaha for Shannon Lucid, establishing a continuous U.S. human presence in orbit, and accruing long-duration experience ahead of International Space Station (ISS) construction operations.
However, unlike Lucid and all other U.S. astronauts who spent periods of several months aboard Mir between March 1995 and June 1998, Blaha was neither a scientist nor a medical doctor, but a seasoned shuttle pilot and commander, with four previous missions under his belt. Indeed, of all the NASA astronauts who have flown long-duration space missions—longer than a month or so—only seven have moved from piloting or commanding the shuttle and rotated into a lengthy stay aboard an Earth-circling space station. As detailed in yesterday’s article, Blaha was 54 years old at the time of STS-79 and, by his own admission, was eager to participate in a long-duration space station mission before his retirement from NASA. In November 1994, he was assigned with fellow astronaut Shannon Lucid and wound up serving as backup for her lengthy stay aboard Mir, before launching as her replacement on STS-79.
Right from the start, Blaha’s four months on Mir—from September 1996 through January 1997—were far from smooth sailing. He was originally scheduled to join Russian cosmonauts Gennadi Manakov and Pavel Vinogradov, who would launch from Baikonur in Kazkahstan aboard Soyuz TM-24 in August 1996, alongside France’s first female spacefarer, Claudie André-Deshays. Manakov and Vinogradov would remain aboard Mir until early 1997, through the entirety of Blaha’s stay, and the trio had accordingly trained closely for many months. But only three weeks before launch, a problem was discovered with Manakov’s heart rhythm and he was hospitalized. In accordance with normal flight procedures, the entire Russian crew (including Vinogradov) was grounded and replaced by their backups, Valeri Korzun and Aleksandr Kaleri.
In his book Dragonfly, Bryan Burrough touched on the effect of this late crew-swap upon Blaha, who would be spending four months in space with two cosmonauts that he barely knew. He learned of the swap on 9 August, whilst at home in Houston, Texas, but upon his return to the Star City training center, near Moscow, a few days later, Korzun and Kaleri invited him out to dinner and made their introductions. Together with André-Deshays, Korzun and Kaleri roared to orbit on 17 August and docked with Mir two days later. For two weeks, they worked with Shannon Lucid and her Russian crewmates Yuri Onufrienko and Yuri Usachev. Finally, Onufrienko, Usachev, and André-Deshays returned to Earth, leaving Korzun, Kaleri, and Lucid aboard Mir until the arrival of STS-79 and Blaha.
By the time he launched on 16 September 1996, it had been almost five years since the concrete idea of flying to a space station had entered Blaha’s mind. In October 1991, he attended an Association of Space Explorers (ASE) meeting in Berlin and met a group of cosmonauts and watched a video aboard Mir. Two years later, when Norm Thagard and Bonnie Dunbar were assigned to train for NASA’s first long-duration Mir mission, Blaha posited a question: Could pilots, as well as physicians, be considered for slots? In correspondence with this author in mid-1997, he explained that if he was to get the chance to work aboard a space station before retirement, it had to be Mir. For Blaha, Space Station Freedom—which subsequently evolved into today’s ISS—was the only choice.
For a week after his 18 September arrival at Mir, Blaha underwent a “handover” from Lucid, focusing upon the scientific research and the layout of the space station itself. Years later, he was somewhat critical and “disappointed” with this handover, feeling that astronauts should have more time set aside during the handover for a thorough understanding. “The handover time is like gold,” Blaha told a NASA interviewer. “If you optimize the handover for the ‘long’ person, who is going to be there, you could even save money in training on the ground.” Sadly, the handover was just the start of a long and difficult expedition.
One problem began before Atlantis departed, when the vessel chamber of the Biotechnology System (BTS)—tasked with cartilage development studies—refused to rotate correctly. Although initial repairs proved unsuccessful, it later became clear that a control and data cable had become dislodged. Blaha was asked to power down the BTS to resolve this problem, but the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston had to convey its instructions through their Russian counterparts in Moscow, which took time. At length, Mission Scientist John Uri talked Blaha through a successful repair effort.
Twenty years ago, this month, as Blaha’s increment got underway, he worked a range of disciplines, including fundamental biology, human life sciences, environmental radiation monitoring, and the growth of wheat in the space station’s greenhouse. In Dragonfly, his controversial book about the shuttle-Mir program, Bryan Burrough noted that Blaha’s efforts were hampered by equipment problems, including cameras which were not in flight-ready shape. From Korzun and Kaleri’s perspective, he was operating at a high pace, as he did on a short-duration shuttle flight. Paraphrased by Burrough, it was Korzun—as Mir’s commander—who eventually reported that his NASA crewmate was overworked and that “the Americans really need to get better organized.” This appeared to have the desired impact, but all three men routinely worked 14-hour days on experiments, maintenance, and general housekeeping of Mir.
Throughout the fall of 1996, Blaha sampled mammalian cartilage cells, grew crystals of two separate alloys, and took microbial specimens from throughout the expansive space station. He battled other BTS glitches and continued his monitoring of dwarf wheat seedlings in the greenhouse, regularly planting new crops. By his own admission, he rarely saw Korzun and Kaleri in the station’s warren-like maze of modules. “Every now and then, I would do something with one of the cosmonauts,” he said later. “Maybe there were 15-20 times in that four months. The reason was we all were too busy. We couldn’t be together. All three of us had to working on things to accomplish all the work.”
That said, Blaha managed to watch movies to help him sleep at night and he utilized ham radio to communicate with other operators on Earth. These provided an essential psychological crutch. “All three of us were busy, from eight in the morning until ten in the evening,” he remembered. Korzun and Kaleri worked even later, often until midnight. “I quit at ten or ten-thirty, if I could,” continued Blaha, “so that I could wind down and get a good night’s sleep. I never just watched them do stuff, because I never had any time to do that. I was busy with all the things I was doing, which predominantly was the science experiments.” Seven-day working weeks were the norm.
Problems affected the aging Mir, which was well into its 10th year of operations in 1996, and in November its waste recycling system malfunctioned and its reserve containers were almost full. Korzun and Kaleri’s replacement crew were delayed from December until February 1997; also postponed was the next unpiloted Progress cargo ship. But on 22 November, the new Progress arrived, bringing fresh fruit, clean clothes, new human waste containers, and early Christmas and New Year gifts. Blaha watched the Progress approaching, through a small window in Mir’s Kvant-2 module.
“I finally saw the Progress at a distance of 20 miles (32 km); a shining star, rising towards us at great speed from beneath the horizon,” he recalled. He then moved to the opposite end of the station, to the Kvant-1 module, right at the point where the docking would occur, and felt a firm thump—“five times stronger than I remembered the shuttle docking with Mir”—as the cargo craft made its presence known. Blaha described the excitement of waiting up until well past midnight to open up the cargo ship. “Once we found our packages,” he wrote, “it was like Christmas and your birthday, all rolled together, when you are five years old. We really had a lot of fun reading mail, laughing, opening presents, eating fresh tomatoes and cheese.” They continued to work through the Thanksgiving holiday and the first week of December was punctuated by a pair of EVAs by Korzun and Kaleri.
The cosmonauts’ task was to install extra solar array cables and contacts on the exterior of Kvant-1, thereby bringing its electricity-generating capability up to the required six kilowatts. For Blaha, who co-ordinated their activities from inside the station, it was the first time he had witnessed an EVA. “I will forever have images implanted in my brain of Valeri and Sasha … preparing for the spacewalks, asking many questions to specialists on Earth and probing every possible scenario,” he reflected. “I will forever remember the incredible views of these two cosmonauts floating in space, silhouetted against the black of space, with Planet Earth rotating by us below. I will forever remember the sounds of strain in their breathing when the workload was intense.”
In December, Blaha became the first American to spend Christmas in space since the Skylab era. In a news conference, Korzun described the crew’s Christmas menu as “outstanding,” with traditional cakes and dishes, including lamb, pork, and desserts, together with Italian foodstuffs and cheeses. However, Blaha’s return to Earth was imminent, with Shuttle Atlantis and the STS-81 crew poised to deliver his replacement—veteran NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger—in mid-January 1997. In readiness for his return home, Blaha began packing bags of equipment, but his expedition’s misfortunes were not yet over. On 10 January, one of two cooling fans failed in a freezer which contained all of the samples of his life sciences research.
No spare fans were aboard Mir and the question arose of how to keep the samples frozen until Atlantis’ arrival. Blaha removed the front door of the freezer and attached a temporary door to keep the temperature stable until the shuttle docked on 14 January. Meanwhile, replacement fans were loaded aboard Atlantis and carried uphill on STS-81. Among the other items returned to Earth with Blaha were the wheat samples, which marked the first time that plants had completed a full growth cycle in space. He spent much time with Linenger to hand over duties for the next long-duration astronaut.
“During my first few days, John and I had many private conversations, tucked away in a corner of the station,” Linenger reflected in his memoir, Off the Planet. “We went through how the toilet works, how the treadmill works and he did his routine. He explained in detail how he cleaned himself after working out on the treadmill; there’s a trick to it.
“Water is in short supply up there and therefore you need to use two or three thimblefuls, which you put on a little towel. He would cut the towel into about five or six sections to conserve towels, because there’s no way to keep delivering new towels. He showed how you can make a couple of thimblefuls of water go a long way. Sanitation was not an easy task up there. During your treadmill sessions, you would definitely be sweating and our T-shirts would get soaked. Our supply of shirts and shorts was such that we could only change every two weeks!” In Off the Planet, he added that Blaha’s “unalloyed frankness” and “uncensored remarks” were invaluable in allowing him to fine-tune his own mindset, ahead of four months aboard Mir.
Returning to Earth with the STS-81 crew—Commander Mike Baker, Pilot Brent Jett, and Mission Specialists Jeff Wisoff, John Grunsfeld, and Marsha Ivins—on 22 January, Blaha wrapped up a mission lasting 128 days. It was 10 times longer than any of his previous shuttle flights and established him as the most experienced U.S. male spacefarer at that time, as well as the second most seasoned American astronaut, after Shannon Lucid. Although his record for U.S. male astronauts was exceeded that same year, 1997, Blaha remains the first person to have piloted and commanded the space shuttle and gone on to fly a lengthy mission aboard a space station. In so doing, he laid the foundations for others to follow, including recently-returned one-year crewman Scott Kelly.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will look back on shuttle mission STS-34, launched in October 1989, which delivered the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter.