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Duration Records of Women on Mir Set High Expectations
03.23.12
 
Elena Kondakova

Image above: Russian cosmonaut Elena Kondakova, the first woman to make a long-duration spaceflight, prepares to fly on STS-84 in 1997. Image credit: NASA
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Shannon Lucid

Image above: NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid set an endurance record aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1996, which stood for 11 years. Image credit: NASA
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Nicole Stott

Image above: NASA astronaut and aeronautical engineer Nicole Stott, from Clearwater, Fla., joined NASA at Kennedy Space Center in 1988. Image credit: NASA
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The fireworks created by the Russian space station Mir as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere over the South Pacific on March 23, 2001, during Women's History Month, seemed not only a celebration of 15 years on orbit, but of the records set by its female crew members.

Only two women contributed to the knowledge amassed aboard Mir during NASA's Shuttle-Mir Program in preparation for the assembly and permanent staffing of the International Space Station, but each made significant space history during her sojourn.

Russian cosmonaut Elena Kondakova, the first woman to visit Mir, served as flight engineer on Mir 17 for 169 days from October 1994 to March 1995. On her first spaceflight, she set the record for being the first woman to make a long-duration spaceflight.

A year later, NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid, with the experience of four shuttle missions, joined the crew of Mir 21. In residence 188 days from March to September 1996, she set an endurance record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut.

Lucid also set the record for the most flight hours in orbit by any woman, a record that stood for 11 years until surpassed by Sunita "Suni" Williams in 2007, with her 195-day stay on the station. Mir 21 was Lucid's last space assignment.

Mir 17 was not Kondakova's only visit to Mir. She served as mission specialist on the STS-84 crew in May 1997, NASA's sixth shuttle mission to rendezvous and dock with the Russian station. Also on the nine-day mission was pilot Eileen Collins, who later became the first woman to serve as a shuttle commander.

The career of NASA astronaut Nicole Stott mirrors that of Kondakova. Stott's first assignment was a long-duration flight aboard the International Space Station in 2009, as flight engineer for the Expedition 20 and 21 crews, during which she logged 91 days in space, followed by a 13-day flight in 2011 aboard shuttle Discovery on its final mission, STS-133.

Unlike the astronaut candidates during the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle eras, applicants to NASA's astronaut corps today expect potential assignments to fall in the long-duration category.

"The entire long-duration flight experience was even better than I expected," Stott said, "and I had very high expectations."

Stott explained: "The crew training that we have prepares us very well for both the nominal and potential off-nominal things that can happen. I think this is why I felt so comfortable when I was strapped into Discovery for the first time for launch and the first time floating through the hatch from Discovery to the station. It was a very surreal feeling -- to have the physical place look so familiar, but to be floating at the same time!

Over the years, 44,657 people have applied to become astronauts, not counting those vying for a slot in the 2013 astronaut class. Of the 330 selected, 48 women were deemed to have the "right stuff." Today, 14 of the 57 active astronauts are women.

Stott had this advice to offer her colleagues: "Take the time to talk with flown crew members who are more than happy to share their experiences and lessons learned.

"Know that when you finally do fly, it will be a challenging, busy, rewarding and totally awesome experience."

A typical station assignment lasts 180 days. However, NASA's International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini announced March 20 that a 500-day international expedition aboard the station is under consideration to determine whether deep-space explorers could function physically and mentally on an interplanetary mission to Mars.

One can almost hear spacefaring candidates worldwide sigh in unison, "Awesome!"

 
 
Kay Grinter
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center