By Edward S. Goldstein
Among a select group of space travelers, Shannon Lucid has amassed more than her share of frequent flyer miles. A veteran of five shuttle missions and 179 days aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1996, Lucid discussed what it is like to live and work in space.
Q. On Apollo 8, while en route to the moon, Jim Lovell mused, “If I’m some lonely traveler from another planet, what I think about the Earth at this altitude, [is] whether I think it’d be inhabited or not.” Given your experiences on five spaceflights, did you have occasion to view Earth in a fresh light, rather than just say, “Oh, here’s something that I know from the perspective of a familiar landscape or coastline.”
A. Well, I never looked at it like I was an alien. But there are a couple of things that really struck me. Let me just say right here that people who keep saying you can’t really see borders from space, that just really irks me, because you can. There are geological reasons why you can see the borders. You can very definitely see the borders between Egypt and Israel because of the way they use the land. There are places in South Africa [that] for the same reason you can see the borders.
A couple of things really struck me on Mir [Mir-21 mission] when you had the opportunity to be at the window and look as you went around. I guess growing up we thought that the United States was the center of the universe and we were big. It really struck me how, in comparison with the rest of the world, we are really small, because it takes about 10 minutes to pass over the United States and takes a lot longer to go across Eurasia. That put it in perspective that the United States isn’t the biggest country in the world. There’s much more.
The other thing that I really liked watching was going over the Eurasian landmass, and there was so much space that I hadn’t been to or hadn’t seen, and it just made you wonder what was going on with the people down there and gave you this urge to go and see all those places that you’d never seen.
It also struck me that when I was younger and had first started flying my airplane around Texas and Oklahoma, how hard it is to find cities and towns, because there is so much of the area that didn’t have any habitation or signs of habitation. And the same way from orbit: There’s just so much of what you are flying over that was barren and empty. There was just so much that I hadn’t seen and so much that I wanted to see.
What was the most beautiful thing you saw from above?
One thing I saw that was artwork in motion was that when I got up there it appeared most of the northern hemisphere was iced over and frozen and white. It just seemed like overnight spring came and everything turned green. You could see the rivers starting to flow, and you could see the ice retreat, and it was just gorgeous to see creation. It was almost like watching creation take place right before your eyes.
On your Mir mission I understand you had a memorable conversation with your crewmates Yuri Onufriyenko and Yury Usachev about how you grew up in rural Oklahoma, Onufriyenko in a Ukrainian village and Usachev in a Russian village.
That’s true. We were just floating around and discussing our childhood. They were both discussing how afraid they were of the American bombers that were going to come to their village and drop the atomic bomb on them, and it just really struck me as I was telling them that was our big fear in Bethany, Oklahoma — as we absolutely knew it was the center of the universe — and the Russians were going to come and bomb us. And we even had atomic bomb drills where you would all get underneath your desk, which is sort of crazy if you think about it. It just really struck me how absolutely preposterous anybody would have thought it would have been that even five years before we were having this conversation, that we would be there, two Russian engineers and one American female floating there in space discussing their childhood and how each had grown up fearing each other’s countries. But there we were, living and working together and having a great time
You reported you laughed a lot on that flight.
Yes, we did. Well, as everybody knows, I’m not exactly fluent in Russian. So before the flight I was really sort of wondering that four months — and then it turned into six months — can really be a long time if you can’t talk with people, because I like to talk. And when I talk I like to joke around and laugh and I was wondering how this was going to work. On the very first day I got up there, we were eating and floating around the table. So I was talking, and I use that term loosely, in what I considered wonderful Russian. And they were very politely listening. And actually I started to joke around. And they were laughing with me, not at me, and not at my Russian. At that point I knew I was home free and it was going to be a great flight.
You made a point in your after-action report that you have to pay attention to the compatibility of the crews on a long-term flight. What do you think leads to compatibility?
There are two things. Everyone wants to have these wonderful programs where you can just pick absolutely the best people and the most psychologically compatible people. The way I look at it … there’s no way we are going to develop tests or tools that can with 100 percent accuracy tell us that this is the best pairing that there can possibly be. So what I think that you really need to do is accept reality. We’re going to have many different people from different countries, different cultures. And for many different reasons people are going to be assigned, because of political pressure … or certain mission requirements that require certain skills. So the kind of training that people need to get is how to get along with people that are a little different, that are not necessarily your soul mate. That’s what people need to know how to do – to live and work with whoever they are given. And that’s how you build a compatible crew.
Following your mission on Mir, you described how the crew repaired balky equipment without guidance from mission control either in Star City or in Houston. In this regard, you have said in the future, crews must be treated more like laboratory scientists who have their own initiative and freedom.
Going to Mars is going to absolutely require that we are in that mindset and not in the mindset that we are in right now where the ground dictates and is in absolute control. For one thing, the communications lag will mean we have to do that. If we try to do it the current way, it’s just not going to work.
On your 14-day shuttle flight devoted to human and life sciences (STS-58, Columbia, 1993), experiments were conducted on human adaptation to space. Were you among those susceptible to motion sickness?
Well, in the first place, motion sickness is a misnomer. It’s not motion sickness like you think of motion sickness as riding in a car or an airplane or going on a merry-go-round, etc. I get motion-sick in cars, and I don’t like to swing or go on amusement park rides or merry-go-rounds because it bothers me. But I never whatsoever had any symptoms of what they call space adaptation syndrome.
So if it’s a misnomer, what is it, and what are we learning about it?
They don’t know exactly what it is. It’s adapting to the microgravity environment. And it probably has something to do with the nerve vestibular system. But there’s not a correlation between people who get air-sick, car-sick, sea-sick and people who are susceptible to the space adaptation syndrome.
After your Mir flight, some of the principal investigators on the Candle Flame in Microgravity Glovebox Experiment applauded you for observing subtle phenomena that a video or still camera would miss.
Yes, that’s true. There was that one and the experiment we had with liquids enclosed in a container, and they were going to take different wave forms. Because I had extra time, I just fiddled with it and got some wave forms that they never thought would have existed. With the candle experiment, what happened [was] when I tried to take the pictures like the procedures called for, nothing came out, and you couldn’t get it on the video. And that’s because the flame was burning at such a low level of intensity that the human eye could pick it up, but the cameras we had on board couldn’t. And I ended up drawing pictures of what was happening. Actually, I thought the camera experiment was extremely interesting because they thought it was just a simple experiment … On the candle we basically ended up with more questions at the end than we had at the beginning. Of course, that’s very good science whenever you can end up with more questions.
Were there any unique dreams you had in space?
Once when I was on Mir, I dreamt that I was at Highway 3 and NASA Road 1 in Clear Lake City, and I was in the back of my Datsun and there were some other people, I don’t know who, in the front. I think we had been kidnapped or something and they were driving down the road of Highway 3, and then all of a sudden the situation arose that I just floated out of the backseat and overpowered the people that were driving and kidnapping and then floated out the window. I just thought that was so interesting that I was dreaming of a situation on Earth, and the way that I solved the dilemma or the problem was that I just floated and did it like you were in space. I thought it was really interesting to mix the medium that I was on Earth in an earthly situation, but reacted by floating. It didn’t strike me odd at all that I just floated and took care of everything.
Why did you say on Mir that you were really craving M&M’S®?
Frankly, your life is a little constrained living on station; there’s a limit to how many exciting things you can come up with to talk about … And so this reporter asked, “What do you miss? What would you really like?” And I just was thinking through my head what would be an okay thing to say. And I had just finished up the last of the M&M’S® that were on orbit. So I said, “I would really like some M&M’S®.” It just took a life of its own from there on. What was so funny was my son who was in college at the time e-mailed me and said, “Mom, why did you ask for M&M’S®? Why didn’t you ask for a Corvette or something that would at least be useful?”
On your first mission (STS-34, Atlantis, 1989), what do you remember about the lightning experiment the crew conducted?
The lightning is pretty amazing as you fly over — especially over Africa — and they had big thunderstorms. You can just see the lightning, and it seems to go across the whole continent.
On your fourth flight (STS-58, Columbia, 1993), your fellow crewmates were the first to dissect rats for biological research. Did you have a role with that?
I did all the training and everything. And I did all the rat work where you put IVs in the rat’s tail veins. That was really neat, because I had worked with rodents a lot before. I was really good at that.
Did you see cosmic rays when your eyes were closed?
I saw them once on the shuttle on the first flight. On Mir, I saw them fairly often if I didn’t fall asleep immediately when I closed my eyes. On Mir, I noticed there were two different kinds. There were some that came like small little linear bright streaks and some that looked like little tiny light bulbs. They were starting and had a little glow.
Did they have a color to them?
Orangeish, and the streaks were more yellow.
Did you have a favorite sunset or sunrise or did they become common?
No, I always enjoyed watching the sunrises and the sunsets whenever you had the opportunity. And I always enjoyed seeing the nighttime come across the face of the Earth.
If you were given the opportunity under our new exploration plans, where would you rather go: to the moon or Mars?
If I had the opportunity to do either, I would rather go to Mars. But I think going to the moon is the right thing so we can go to Mars.
Where would you like to go on Mars?
Oh, everywhere. I think it would be real interesting to be at the junction of the ice caps. I just think it would be really neat to go to Mars.
In 1955, for an eighth grade assignment about, “What I want to do when I grow up,” you wrote that you wanted to be a “rocket scientist and go explore the universe,” and your teacher thought you were making fun of the assignment.
Ah, that’s true. I still have the paper I wrote. Actually it’s pretty good. One thing was we were supposed to find a reference. And I thought, this is perfect, I can make up any reference I want. So I can just make up what I want about the qualifications.