To Live Like Russians: Remembering America’s Long Mission to Mir, 25 Years On (Part 1)

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

In March 2020, it seems inconceivable to think of U.S. astronauts being totally unaccustomed to long-duration spaceflight. Over the past quarter-century, no fewer than 67 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 flights to Russia’s Mir space station or the International Space Station (ISS), which approached or exceeded the magical 100 days in space.

Six have flown two long-duration flights, whilst a couple have chalked up three marathon missions. Four years ago this very month, Scott Kelly secured a record for the longest singular spaceflight by an American male, at 340 days, whilst only last month Christina Koch logged 328 days to set a similar history-making benchmark for American (and all) females.

Scott Kelly’s 2016 record for the longest single space flight ever undertaken by a U.S. male astronaut saw him stand on the shoulders of Norm Thagard, whose pioneering voyage to Mir laid the groundwork for long-duration living off Earth. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Yet 25 years ago, this month, the longest period a U.S. astronaut had spent in space on one mission was 84 days, set back in the 1970s by the final Skylab crew. And on 14 March 1995, veteran shuttle flyer Norm Thagard embarked into wholly new territory by not only flying a long-duration flight, but a long-duration flight with the United States’ old enemy, Russia. His four-month stay aboard the Mir space station would make huge inroads into understanding the effects of long-term exposure to the microgravity environment from a physical and psychological perspective, as well as in terms of work scheduling and flexibility. It also afforded Thagard the opportunity to chat to a former shuttle crewmate.

For Thagard, selection in February 1994 to fly the first of several multi-month NASA “increments” to Mir was a prize he had sought for several years. Intrigued by the possibility of missions with the Russians, his mind was made up when Chief Astronaut Dan Brandenstein asked him, point-blank, if he would fly the first one. Thagard’s response was immediate: “Absolutely!”

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

Dunbar had been approached by Leestma in December 1993. Despite her reservations about learning Russian, she had mastered German during training for a previous mission, but the assignment was met with some surprise by Thagard, since Dunbar had not volunteered for the Russian language classes. “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 veteran shuttle commander Ken Cameron as NASA’s first director of operations in Russia headed to a closeted country which had remained screened from outsiders for decades. 

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!”

Last month, Christina Koch wrapped up a 328-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). In doing so, she secured a new record for the longest single space voyage ever undertaken by a woman. Photo Credit: NASA

From July through December 1993, Thagard and NASA flight surgeon Dave Ward learned the basics of the Russian language, which, although not “total immersion”, was “pretty intensive”. In early 1994, NASA formally announced Thagard’s selection, and, bowing to Russian pressure, assigned veteran astronaut Bonnie Dunbar as his backup. 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 Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov aboard Soyuz TM-21 in March 1995.

At the same time, “Team Zero,” the first of ten 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. As such, 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 were put 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 Dezhurov and Strekalov, Dunbar withcosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin—and started to learn and master Mir and Soyuz-TM systems.

Video Credit: AP Archive

Living in Russia was more spartan than the United States. Thagard and Dunbar were given accommodation in a high-rise block at 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 once per week. Dunbar, meanwhile, was embraced by the women of Star City, who invited her to their homes for tea. The mid-1990s were an exceptionally difficult time in Russia. 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.

Funding from the United States took two months to arrive, since it had to be funneled through NASA Headquarters, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. embassies in Paris and Moscow, before ending up (in cash) in the hands of 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, 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, 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 the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan 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. Oddly, however, he noted that none of it was brought back from Mir…

The second part of this article will appear next weekend.

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1 comment to To Live Like Russians: Remembering America’s Long Mission to Mir, 25 Years On (Part 1)

  • Charles

    I worked Spacelab Life Sciences and a lot of our team morphed into the first people that worked with the Russians – it was a surreal experience. We were getting long duration experience flying people to Mir while the ISS people were supposed to learn from us. There was almost no interest from ISS as you might imagine.

    We started with “early Progress” where we sent supplies to the Mir, then worked Shuttle/Mir where we flew people to Mir. This was almost all done with little or no planning and we made things up as we went along – with efficiency and usability being left out. Norm and Bonnie shared a single satellite phone when we could have bought a dozen and sent them to Star City. We were always given totally unrealistic delivery dates and incorrect information so that the crews were often up in Mir without the experiments and hardware that they had trained with. Our astronauts had very abbreviated training as well – the psychological support people had put together support for Shannon Lucid, it was photos and video based on a lake vacation. After the flight we asked Shannon if it helped her – she didn’t know it was there and never looked at any of it. That is a single example.

    We should have had far more reasonable goals.

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