‘Horrendous Gas Mileage’: 20 Years Since the STS-81 Mission to Mir (Part 1)

Mir, as viewed from Atlantis on STS-81. The orange-colored Docking Module (DM), at the end of the Kristall module, is visible at the right of the image. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Mir, as viewed from Atlantis on STS-81. The orange-colored Docking Module (DM), at the end of the Kristall module, is visible at the right of the image. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Two decades ago, this week, America’s Space Shuttle Program began living up to its billing as a vehicle for delivering experiments, equipment, people, and supplies to an Earth-orbiting space station. In the small hours of 12 January 1997, Atlantis roared into the darkened skies of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, on a 10-day voyage to exchange long-duration U.S. astronauts aboard Russia’s Mir outpost and transport upwards of 6,100 pounds (2,800 kg) of logistics in a pressurized Spacehab double module. During STS-81, astronaut Jerry Linenger was dropped off at Mir for a four-month increment, whilst John Blaha returned to Earth after his own extended stay in space. In the meantime, the “core” shuttle crew of Commander Mike Baker, Pilot Brent Jett, and Mission Specialists Jeff Wisoff, John Grunsfeld, and Marsha Ivins and Mir’s own crew of Commander Valeri Korzun and Flight Engineer Aleksandr Kaleri supported one of the most complex and ambitious joint flights ever attempted.

In fact, Blaha had spent a considerable period of time since Christmas 1996 preparing for his departure, by packing 15 bags with equipment to bring back to Earth. An additional illustration of the closeness of the U.S.-Russian partnership came on 10 January 1997, when one of two cooling fans in a freezer for the myriad biological experiments failed. Although Blaha was able to remove the freezer door, attach a replacement, and effect a temporary repair—thereby keeping temperatures as cool as possible in the interim—he spoke to Flight Surgeon Pat McGinnis and engineer Matt Mueller on the ground, who managed to locate replacement fans and have them delivered to KSC and loaded aboard Atlantis, as the shuttle sat vertically on the launch pad.

Jerry Linenger, pictured during STS-81 training with crewmate Marsha Ivins, was the fourth U.S. astronaut to spend a period of several months aboard Mir. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Jerry Linenger, pictured during STS-81 training with crewmate Marsha Ivins, was the fourth U.S. astronaut to spend a period of several months aboard Mir. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Overall, STS-81 would bring 1,400 pounds (635 kg) of water, 1,140 pounds (516 kg) of U.S. research gear, 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) of Russian equipment, and 265 pounds (120 kg) of “miscellaneous” materials to Mir, as well as ferrying almost 2,425 pounds (1,100 kg) of unneeded items back to the Home Planet. Among the items to be brought home by Atlantis’ crew were wheat samples from Mir’s Svet greenhouse—which would mark the first occasion in history that plants had completed a full growth cycle in space—whilst STS-81 would also deliver the Treadmill Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System (TVIS) for testing and evaluation in readiness for its role aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

In his 2000 memoir, Off the Planet, Jerry Linenger reflected upon the wry sense of humor of his STS-81 crewmate, John Grunsfeld. As an undergraduate, Grunsfeld had worked on his car in a self-help garage run by two Masschusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates, who later started a popular radio program, called Car Talk. Prior to the STS-81 launch, Grunsfeld arranged with the producers to play a prank on the show’s hosts. Whilst in orbit, his telephone call was patched through to the unsuspecting hosts.

Without identifying himself, Grunsfeld complained about his government-issued vehicle, with its horrendous gas mileage and its habit of running extremely roughly for the first two minutes of operation, with lots of shaking. However, he added that after two minutes, it performed like a champ … at least, that is, until it reached eight minutes into its journey, when its engine died completely. The hosts were mystified. Did the vehicle achieve good acceleration, they asked?

“Oh, yeah,” replied Grunsfeld. “About 17,500 miles an hour!”

The hosts realized they had been had. “Who is this?” they asked.

Only then did Grunsfeld identify himself as an astronaut aboard Shuttle Atlantis.

Although Linenger and Blaha had been training for their respective Mir increments for more than a year, the core STS-81 crew was announced in February 1996. Originally, the mission was targeted to launch on 5 December of that same year, but a series of troubles with the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) during the summer pushed back each of the shuttle-Mir docking missions by about six weeks. STS-79, the fourth docking flight, moved from 31 July to 16 September and STS-81, the fifth, correspondingly shifted from early December to 12 January 1997. It gave the crew a significant period of time to prepare for their mission. For Brent Jett, who was recognized as the Astronaut Office’s resident expert on rendezvous, it afforded some time for him to lead the design of the crew patch, which was “V-shaped,” honoring the Roman numeral for “5.” With Baker and Jett leading the rendezvous and docking operation, Wisoff carried responsibility for the Orbiter Docking System (ODS) and Spacehab, Grunsfeld served as the mission’s flight engineer and resident expert on the computer networks and Ivins was the “loadmaster,” heading up the transfer of cargo to and from Mir itself.

In May 1996, the crew traveled to Russia for two weeks of joint training with the Mir cosmonauts. “I probably never thought I would get a chance to go over to Russia,” remembered Jett, “at least back in the days when I was actively flying in the military.” Arriving in Moscow during the time of Russia’s Victory Day—commemorating the triumph over Nazi Germany—Jett was instantly struck by the intensity of the celebrations. One night, the STS-81 astronauts were outside the Kremlin, standing on a bridge over the Moscow River, and were astonished by what they saw. “The streets were closed down,” said Jett. “People were standing in the streets and watching fireworks all over the city and there were probably seven or eight different locations where fireworks were going off. The Kremlin was all lit up. It was absolutely beautiful, but to be part of that celebration was the memory that I thought was most special for that trip.”

All told, Atlantis’ processing flow after returning from her STS-79 mission to Mir in September 1996 progressed smoothly, punctuated only by the need to replace a fuel cell in mid-November, which had exhibited high pH levels. The STS-81 crew and Linenger arrived at KSC on 8 January 1997, ahead of the formal start of the 43-hour countdown. With T-0 precisely timed for 4:27 a.m. EST on the 12th, the astronauts were awakened about 11 hours before launch, but rested through the day and finally proceeded to the suit-up room in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building around midnight. Clad in their bulky suits, they departed the O&C into a blaze of flashbulbs and boarded the Astrovan for the journey to Pad 39B. Shortly after 1 a.m., they had begun the process of boarding Atlantis.

Liftoff occurred at 4:27:23 a.m., right at the opening of the ten-minute “window,” at which time Mir was traveling high over the Galapagos Islands, about 2,762 miles (4,445 km) southwest of KSC. Although it was Baker’s first launch in the hours of darkness, Jett had previously rocketed to orbit at around four in the morning on his first shuttle mission. “When the boosters light, two things you know for sure,” Jett recalled later. “It gets really bright outside and you know you’re leaving the planet!”

Atlantis roars into the night on 12 January 1997. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Atlantis roars into the night on 12 January 1997. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Ascending from the pad, Jett’s attention was focused on his instruments, including the data tapes for the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). Consequently, he “felt,” rather than visually saw, the effect of the “roll program” maneuver, as Atlantis moved onto the proper flight azimuth for insertion into orbit. About 25 minutes after liftoff, the Mir crew of Korzun, Kaleri, and Blaha were notified that Atlantis had successfully achieved orbit and watched a video uplink from Mission Control.

Embarking on a two-day rendezvous profile, the STS-81 crew set to work establishing laptops and laser-ranging equipment and activated the Spacehab double module in the shuttle’s payload bay. Wisoff, Grunsfeld, and Linenger worked to assemble the TVIS and tested its restraint system, its motor, its running-surface stability, and its overall effectiveness in reducing disturbances to the local microgravity environment. Meanwhile, Ivins activated the Biorack facility—provided by the European Space Agency (ESA)—and Jett and Grunsfeld set up the centerline camera in the ODS, preparatory for docking.

Early on 14 January, Baker greeted Mission Control’s wake-up call with a chirpy “Good morning, Houston, 500 miles to go!” He and Jett had worked through a series of Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) “burns” over the first two days of the mission to bring Atlantis closer to Mir. Initially closing on the space station at a rate of 600 miles (965 km) with each 90-minute orbit, the first OMS firing on the afternoon of 12 January had slowed the rate of closure to 580 miles (933 km) per orbit. The shuttle approached along the so-called “R-Bar,” following an imaginary “line” extending from Earth’s center toward Mir. This permitted the pilots to exploit natural gravitational forces to assist in braking and required them to perform thruster firings only sparingly.

The crew spotted their quarry from a distance of about 40 miles (64 km), but from the station itself Blaha did not see them until around eight minutes prior to physical docking. Flying Atlantis from the aft flight deck controls, Baker assumed manual control at a distance of around a half-mile (800 meters) and used the centerline camera on the ODS to guide him towards his target: the orange-colored Docking Module (DM) at the end of Mir’s Kristall module. At 30 feet (9 meters), he reached a station-keeping hold-point, after which a final “Go/No-Go” decision from the respective mission control centers in Houston and Moscow authorized him to press ahead with the final approach.

With Baker at the aft flight deck controls, the final approach occurred at a relative velocity of about 0.1 feet (3 cm) per second, leading to a successful docking at 10:55 p.m. EST on 14 January. Shortly after capture, Ivins clapped Baker on the back in congratulation. Grunsfeld and Linenger then set to work equalizing pressures between the shuttle and Mir, ahead of the opening of hatches.

Through the porthole, inside Kristall, Linenger could see a jubilant Blaha and Korzun. As the hatches opened, in Linenger’s recollection, the shuttle crew was greeted by “an uninhibited laugh” from Blaha, who was wrapping up a difficult four months in orbit. “Then bedlam erupted,” Linenger wrote in his memoir, Off the Planet, “as the six of us blundered our way through the hatch and bumped heads with the much more graceful (being fully adapted to space) threesome of Mir occupants. The scene was one of hugs, shouts, mixed language and laughter, feet dangling in all directions. Nine spacefarers embracing and  floating in every which way. After the chaos calmed, we all migrated, single file, heads closely following feet, into Mir.”

In a similar manner to previous flights, after the welcoming ceremony, Blaha and Linenger swapped their molded Soyuz-TM seat liners and rejoining their respective crews. The shuttle crew gave Korzun and Kaleri new flashlights, because sections of Mir were being kept dark in order to converse electricity. (In fact, a master alarm sounded with a low-electrical-power warning, midway through the welcoming ceremony, much to Korzun’s embarrassment.) It was a clear indication that, although the partnership between the United States and Russia in the shuttle-Mir program was now in full flow, there remained many issues to overcome. Indeed, 1997 would prove to be one of the most testing years endured by the partnership, as it headed for the ISS era.



The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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