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Fire and Controversy

Linenger in his Sokol suit floating in Mir Base BlockPhysician, triathlete, and astronaut Jerry Linenger flew to Mir to do world-class science and to show that a human could do more than endure in microgravity—that he could physically and mentally thrive there.

But, scarcely had his work begun when circumstances changed. An accidental fire altered the whole nature of his mission and served to change the relationship between the U.S. and the Russian space programs. Mir systems breakdowns and problems with communications exacerbated a demanding and difficult situation, both onboard Mir and on the ground. In spite of this, the Mir crews—and the American and Russian ground teams—accomplished the mission’s goals, including almost all of the planned U.S. science experiments.

Launching with Space Shuttle mission STS-81 on January 12, 1997, Linenger succeeded NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha and joined Russian Mir-22 crewmembers, Valeri Korzun and Alexander Kaleri, who would stay onboard Mir until the arrival of the Mir-23 crew. During his duration, Linenger joined his Russian crewmates and became the first American to undock in a Soyuz spacecraft and do a fly-around of Mir. He also became the first American to conduct a spacewalk from a foreign space station and in a non-American spacesuit. Linenger returned to Earth with the STS-84 crew of Atlantis on May 24, 1997, after a total of 132 days in orbit—the longest-duration flight of an American male to date.

Curiosity was "what got me here," he wrote in a letter from Mir to his son; but it was more than curiosity that kept Linenger going. Training and dedication played big roles. Born in Eastpointe, Michigan, in 1955, Linenger graduated with a degree in bioscience from the U.S. Naval Academy. He went on to earn a Doctorate in Medicine from Wayne State University, a Master of Science in systems management from the University of Southern California, a Master of Public Health in health policy from the University of North Carolina, and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina. His U.S. Navy duties included a stint as medical advisor to the Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Selected for astronaut training in 1993, Linenger made his first Space Shuttle flight on the STS-64 mission in 1994.

Linenger’s second Shuttle flight was his STS-81 trip to Mir. While Atlantis was still docked, NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha gave Linenger a detailed and personalized "handover" of the tough assignment. This included Blaha’s insider knowledge about Mir’s systems and quirks, and about the psychological stamina the job would require. The two also packed up the greenhouse experiment for return to Earth with the first plants to complete a life cycle in space—a crop of wheat planted by Shannon Lucid.

Linenger in his Sokol suit floating in Mir Base BlockBefore Linenger could become an official member of the Mir-23 crew, he had to try on and test his Sokol pressurized spacesuit, which would be needed for any emergency evacuation of Mir. STS-81 Mission Specialist John Grunsfeld described the suit-up in a dispatch he sent down from orbit: "The suit is a tight-fitting pressure bladder with a helmet, and Jerry had to squeeze and squirm, with me pushing to get him into it. Compared to our orange launch-and-entry suits, the Russian equivalent seems flimsy and delicate, but it is much lighter. We had to take care not to catch the suit on any sharp edges as we made our way to the Soyuz."

The suit-up worked, and Linenger’s custom-made seat-liner was installed in the Soyuz. He signed into the space station’s log as an official crewmember. His adventure was beginning. On January 23, before Atlantis undocked, he wrote the first in a series of 72 "Letters to My Son" in which he would chronicle his adventures onboard Mir. "Space is a frontier. And I’m out here exploring. For five months! What a privilege!" His experiences would prove to be a considerable challenge as well.

After the Space Shuttle pulled away, the Mir crew took a day off to relax and unpack some of the materials transferred from Atlantis. Linenger told flight controllers that unpacking his many boxes of gear was like opening Christmas presents. He had created quarters for himself in the Spektr module; and he began his regular daily exercise regimen, which included two 1-hour exercise sessions on a treadmill and a stationary bicycle. He also started to work on some of the life sciences and medical investigations, including replacing the radiation dosimeters that had been returned to Earth on Atlantis.

Linenger floating in Priroda, holding gloveboxThe science laid out before Linenger entailed experiments in Earth sciences, biology, human life sciences, microgravity, space sciences, and risk mitigation experiments for the International Space Station. In an interview before his launch held at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Linenger discussed the way he was approaching his science.

"I am a physician by background," he said, "so the life science things have come pretty easy. The more physics sorts of things—that’s something that I have had to learn. It’s like going back to school again and learning some of the basic science behind it, and then getting into the actual mechanics of how to carry out the experiment." From Mir, Linenger wrote to his son, "I try my best. It’s important stuff, and I have to be careful to not make a mistake, like turn the wrong switch at the wrong time, or the experiment would be ruined. Two laboratories (actually 13-meter long ‘tubes’—named Priroda and Spektr) full of equipment. Pretty complex. And basically a one-person show."

Linenger’s first science included working in the Priroda module on a glovebox facility that would provide an airtight, contamination-free work area. He also worked with the balky Biotechnology Systems hardware that had given John Blaha problems.

Linenger was settling in onboard Mir. At the time, he wrote to his son: "Let me tell you about my house. Spectacular view. Unobstructed, overlooking the oceans, the lakes, the rivers; the mountains, plains, and valleys; the city lights, the stars, the other planets. Six modules. One toilet. Dining area with two private sleep stations. Three vessel garage: Soyuz, Shuttle, and supply/garbage truck [Progress]. Each module a 13-meter tube. Lots of extras. Two modules are new additions. State-of-the-art freezers, computers, gas analyzers. Built-in treadmills and bicycles for the recreational enthusiast. Utilities: completely solar-powered. Water from tanks, urine, and condensate. Oxygen included. Radio, ham radio, and telemetry."

On February 6, three weeks into Linenger’s residency, the Progress vehicle undocked, full of garbage, to burn up in the atmosphere. After the undocking, Linenger described how it felt from inside Mir.

"I felt and heard the springs pushing it away. Looked out a tiny window by the hatch and saw its three lights backing away. Stable and slow. Then the thrusters [fired] …"

The next day, Linenger and his crewmates took the Soyuz on a 27-minute "fly-around" of Mir. Later, Linenger gave an impressionistic account of how it felt from within Soyuz. "Smooth, yet firm, push-off. Spring-action. An ink pen floating forward. Then the thrusters firing. Not like an explosion, more like low growls. Short. Repeated….

"Out the window, the Earth spinning by, and the flashes of the thrusters. The space station docking port moving away. A view of module Priroda out my window. Then the whole station—all six cylinders …

"Strapped in. Crouched with my knees almost to my chest. Spacesuit on. Ventilators humming and feeling the air trickle out inside my suit. Control panel in my face. Spinning miniature globe in a glass case. Caution-and-warning lights. Operation manuals written in Cyrillic. And feeling like we are moving, flying …

"On [Mir], you fly around inside—but you don’t feel like the station is flying. Especially if you don’t look outside. But in the [Soyuz], it feels like a car or airplane or jet—sitting in a cockpit, and flying. The Earth spins below. The space station changes position outside the window. And you feel the gentle thrust …

"The docking. Feel and hear a thud. Feel your spaceship being yanked around a bit. Glad when the pressure inside holds. Glad to open the door again."

Earth view with solar arrays Linenger described an interesting perception of the very odor of space that he detected in Mir’s airlock. He called it "a distinct, burnt-dry smell." He added a poetic description of his home in space. "I could see a lone ray of light shining through the port window and outlining the dining table. We had left some food out for dinner. It was the only time during my stay in space that Mir looked warm, inviting, and spacious. It reminded me of opening the door to a summer cottage that had been boarded up for the winter, looking inside, and seeing familiar surroundings."

Mir was even more familiar to Linenger’s crewmates. At this point, Korzun and Kaleri had been onboard for 172 days. Linenger had been in space for 27 days. The continuous American presence in space was now well past 300 days.

Arrival of Mir-23 crew from Soyuz into Mir Space Station nodeBy February 10, company was coming. Soyuz TM-25 launched from Baikonur, carrying the Mir-23 crew of Vasily Tsibliev and Aleksandr Lazutkin, and German astronaut Reinhold Ewald. Ewald would spend 20 days on Mir, performing experiments, and would return to Earth with the Mir-22 crew. On February 11, NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-82) was also in space, with seven astronauts onboard, on a mission unrelated to the Shuttle-Mir Program. The resulting 13 people in Earth orbit tied a record for the most humans in orbit at one time.

Outer space was—in a sense—full, and so was Linenger’s time. He reported he had not been able to satisfy his interest in geography. "There is no free time to just go hang out and look out the window," Linenger said in an interview. "I’ve only done it maybe once a day. I am not sure five months is going to be long enough up here." The views he did manage to get proved spectacular. He wrote: "Today I saw huge dust storms in the Sahara of Africa. Lake Chad drying up. Five minutes later: the Nile, the triangle of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Red Sea all in one view. Then, Elbrus and the snow-covered Caucasus." Also, his physical exercise program was now coming around. He reported: "The first couple of weeks, it was very, very difficult to run on the treadmill. It is a lot tougher than I thought it would be, but now I kind of feel I am back to my old pace and I feel real good."

Mir over Earth The Soyuz TM-25 arrived on February 12, looking like "a stout, winged insect." The new crew brought with them a treat for the old crew—fresh fruit! Apples, bananas, lemons, and oranges. Linenger thought the fresh, Earthy citrus smell meant even more to him than the taste.

Group shot Linenger, Tsibliev, Lazutkin He also wrote to his son and described how the new crew was finding its space legs. "Sasha [Kaleri], Valeri, and I have never collided. Never even touched. I’m sure that they kept clear of my flight path early on, but now we just glide by one another with the greatest of ease. Personal space protected. Everything in place. Huge difference now. Pencils and cameras and gear a-flyin’. People propelling themselves off each other…. Cords and cables along the way getting pulled out. But already, I’ve observed this lessening as the new guys adapt and learn the terrain."

Mir was crowded now with six humans onboard. To supplement the Elektron oxygen-generation system, they used lithium-perchlorate canisters, which generated oxygen through a chemical reaction. Meanwhile, Korzun and Kaleri packed their belongings for the trip home to Earth with the German Ewald. Linenger started a human life sciences investigation into immune system alterations in relation to sleep in microgravity. This required him to wear electrode sensors while he slept and provoked him to quip that he was always working, even in his dreams.

During this handover period, his waking nightmare struck. On the evening of February 24, all hands were in the Base Block finishing a dinner of Russian dishes such as jellied fish and borscht. "There was also caviar," according to Mir-23 Flight Engineer Lazutkin, "red caviar, which we brought along ourselves. You didn’t get it in your rations. It’s too expensive, but we treated ourselves. Let’s say it was a festive evening, and all six of us were sitting around the table."

Linenger sets up the Medilog Sleep Research Recorder (MSRR) experiment equipment Jerry Linenger excused himself to go to the Spektr module to do some work. At about the same time, Lazutkin went into the tunnel to the Kvant-1 module to "burn" another oxygen-generating canister. In a complete surprise, the normally slowly combusting chemicals erupted into searing flame.

Kvant-1 interiorIn Spektr, Linenger heard the master alarm go off. But, that was not, in itself, alarming to him. The same alarm was also used to wake up the crew every morning and would sound for many reasons—both serious and mundane. Linenger’s first reaction was to put on some hearing protection against the noise and to quickly save his computer data in case the power went out. He then flew toward the Base Block to see what was happening, and he noticed the first tendrils of smoke.

"We immediately started fighting that fire," he reported later from Mir. "You had to react to the situation, you had to keep your head about you, so I guess it was just a matter of survival. Going through your mind were thoughts—‘We need to get that fire out.’"

The situation was critical. The fire blocked the only path between the crew and one of the two Soyuz vehicles. At the moment, there was a way of escape for only three of the six men onboard the station.

"The smoke was the most surprising thing to me," Linenger reported. "I did not expect smoke to spread so quickly." In microgravity, there are no convection currents. But, fans on Mir continually circulate the air; and this smoke "was a magnitude about 10 times faster than I would expect a fire to spread on a space station. The smoke was immediate. It was dense … I could see the five fingers on my hand, I could see a shadowy figure of the person in front of me who I was trying to monitor to make sure he was doing okay, but I really could not make him out. Where he was standing he could not see his hands in front of his face. In the distant modules at the very end of the cones, the smoke was still dense, so it was very surprising how fast and rapid the smoke spread throughout the complex."

Burned wire area of the Kvant-1 moduleThe fire resembled a box full of fireworks sparklers, all burning at once. The flame shot out about two to three feet in length, with bright bits of molten metal "flying across and splattering on the other bulkhead." The canister provided the fire with both oxygen and fuel. "It had everything it needed," Linenger said later.

Lazutkin said, "When I saw the ship was full of smoke, my natural reaction was to want to open a window. And then, I was truly afraid for the first time. You can’t escape the smoke. You can’t just open a window to ventilate the room."

The crew immediately began putting on oxygen masks. Linenger’s first mask failed to activate quickly enough, so he grabbed another one. He said that in the time between trying the two masks, the space station’s atmosphere became unbreathable. "I did not inhale anything, and I don’t think anyone else did because the thickness of the smoke told you that you could not breathe. So, everyone immediately went to the oxygen ventilators. They worked very [well], and they protected us from inhalation injury."

Mir-22 Commander Valeri Korzun was in charge of the station. He ordered the one accessible Soyuz escape vehicle to be readied for evacuation. Now, they had to subdue the fire. Korzun faced the fire, using Mir fire extinguishers. He later said, "When I started spraying foam on the hot canister, the foam didn’t stick and had little effect. So, I switched to water and started using that." The water turned to steam, adding to the smoke.

Throughout this ordeal, physician Linenger stayed with Korzun. He passed Korzun fresh fire extinguishers and kept monitoring his level of consciousness. Also, to stabilize Korzun in the absence of gravity, Linenger wedged his own legs into Mir’s connecting tunnel and held on to Korzun’s legs. "At one point," Linenger said, "I floated in front of his face, but the smoke was too dense, even at six inches [to see how he was doing]. So, I resorted to tugging at him when I could not be assured that he was still okay."

Korzun recalled later, "Jerry kept tugging my leg. ‘Valeri, how do you feel?’" Linenger also kept an eye on his other crewmates. He was impressed with Alexander Kaleri’s cool-headedness. During the crisis, Kaleri calmly worked at a computer, printing out reentry information for both of the Soyuz vehicles.

The oxygen canister eventually burned itself out; but smoke remained everywhere, even "in the distant modules at the very end of the cones." It was now about 100°F inside the Kvant-1 module. And, it was dark with smoke and soot. According to Lazutkin, "We even thought someone had switched the lights out in Kvant. That’s how black it was."

Charred panel edge after fire The fire had destroyed the canister itself, as well as the panel covering the device. The crew also reported that the outer insulation on several cables was melted by the heat. Fortunately, all Mir systems continued to operate normally.

Shortly after the incident, Linenger reported from Mir, "Being a physician, I was very concerned with crew health. We set up a station for any respiratory problems that might take place. We had all the emergency gear in place. I did exams on all the crewmembers immediately following the fire, and then for 24 and 48 hours after that. I looked at oxygen saturation in the blood, checked the lungs—all the normal things you would do post-fire. From my assessment, I [didn’t] see where anyone had any serious [smoke] inhalation damage, and it was due to good action by the crew to get into the oxygen masks quickly."

Korzun and Kaleri pose with the Protein Crystal Growth GN2 Dewar freezer The two crews went back to work. Linenger completed the first part of the sleep investigation on March 1. On March 2, the Mir-22 crew returned to Earth. Korzun and Kaleri had clocked 197 days in space. The new Mir-23 commander, Tsibliev, had already spent 200 days on Mir during an earlier expedition. This mission was Lazutkin’s first time in space. Linenger still had nearly three months left.

Trouble occurred again almost immediately. During the first week in March, an Elektron unit failed. The unit, located in Mir’s Kvant-2 module, separates oxygen from the onboard wastewater and returns the oxygen to the cabin atmosphere using electrolysis. Russian ground controllers asked the crew to attempt to activate a second Elektron unit located in the Kvant-1 module. The crew succeeded in starting up that unit, but the unit was producing higher levels of hydrogen than it should. Controllers told the crew to shut down the system and to go back to the solid-fuel, oxygen-generating devices. There were still 200 of these onboard—a two-month supply—and thousands had been successfully used during Mir’s lifetime. Linenger and his crewmates did not object, but they made sure they always had a clear path to the Soyuz in the event of another fire.

The crew also had problems with the Progress-233 resupply vehicle, which had been undocked from the station on February 6 and placed in a stationkeeping position away from Mir. The spacecraft could no longer redock to the outpost as planned due to problems with the remotely operated rendezvous system. The next test of the rendezvous system was scheduled for the next Progress resupply vehicle, scheduled to arrive at Mir on April 8.

Candle flames in microgravity experimentDuring early March, Linenger worked on the Human Life Sciences Humoral Immunity Investigation, which involved taking blood samples to study the immune cells in the human body. He also began the Microgravity Opposed Flame Flow Spread Experiment to study flames in microgravity. He wrote, "We’ve got some great experiments…. We’re way ahead on the power curve as far as that goes. For example, we did a flame experiment inside a glovebox, a very controlled situation looking at ventilation and how it affects flame spread." The cabin fire in late February possibly added to Linenger’s interest in this. He wrote, "I realize that this is important work I’m doing up here. I am glad to be doing it and I am very preoccupied with my work."

The science was very important to Linenger. In a letter to his son, he wrote again about the flame experiment and commented on the value of having human researchers doing the science. "I’m not only getting through this experiment, but I’m expanding it a bit, based on my real-time observations…. A programmed machine can’t do that. You need a trained human observer, a scientist, to do that. Human observation and intervention give us better data, better understanding."

In another letter, he compared his situation with that of Antarctic explorers of about a century earlier. "Compared to what they endured, the space station is a five-star hotel. They ate seal and penguin meat, day after day after day. I get Russian-American freeze-dried cuisine—shrimp cocktail, veggies, [borscht]—the whole spread. They had a lightless winter. I get light and dark every 45 minutes. They wore the same clothes for over a year; I get a fresh T-shirt and pair of shorts every week. They had to trudge through uneven, unstable terrain; whereas I float effortlessly."

Still more technical problems came in mid-March as Linenger was passing the halfway point in his stay onboard Mir. The space station’s orientation system broke down. A sensor in the Spektr module failed, prompting the motion control computer to switch to a backup system. During the three-minute swap-over, all attitude control was lost. The crew placed the station in what is called "free drift" and then used onboard thruster jets to stabilize its attitude. For most of that day, Mir remained in a "gravity gradient," which basically means that the most massive part of Mir naturally pointed toward Earth. Because this attitude did not keep the solar arrays pointed at the Sun, the crew turned off the gyrodynes and other equipment to conserve power. Late in the day, flight controllers uplinked a new attitude maneuver to the motion control system computer, and the crew restarted the gyrodynes. The station’s primary attitude sensor, called Omega, was still inoperable; and so control was managed by a backup unit until the crew installed a spare Omega sensor and rerouted cables.

Linenger described, in a letter, the experience of going without power on Mir. "Last night it got really, really, really dark in my room, module Spektr. Lost all power. I’ve been in dark places before, but this was unEarthly dark. Darker than any dark I’ve ever seen. Dark is not even the proper word for it.

"Of course, I couldn’t hang out in the quiet room. No ventilators working means no air circulation. Warm air doesn’t rise in space (which way is up?); there is no natural convection. No wind, no breeze; without the ventilators, only stillness."

In late March, Linenger became the fourth most experienced U.S. astronaut when his total flight time surpassed that of the 1974 Skylab-4 crew of 84 days in space. The only U.S. astronauts with more time in space were his Shuttle-Mir predecessors—Norm Thagard, Shannon Lucid, and John Blaha. In a radio interview, Linenger talked about his experience so far:

 Photograph of the Comet Hale-Bopp as it sets over the Earth limb"[Mir] is a small place, but space is an amazing place to be. Just today I looked out the window … and saw [the comet] Hale-Bopp. It looked like a flashlight in the sky, and then I looked to the north and saw the Northern Lights flickering green explosions off the northern horizon of the Earth. Then, I saw the sunrise. Moments like that lift your spirits. Loneliness and things that you might think would be very tough to bear up here get kind of mellowed out by things like that. The adventure of being in space is enough to get you through it, and I really have no difficult problem with that up here."

Vozdukh carbon dioxide removal units in Kavant 1By early April, the Mir-23 crew had used about 70 of the oxygen-generating "candles" since the fire. They had about 130 remaining and were using about three a day. Also, Russian flight controllers had detected a leak in one of the Kvant-2 module’s cooling loops. The Mir crew worked on the leak while the station’s orientation was altered so that Kvant-2 was kept in the shade of other structures. Because of coolant loop problems, a Vozdukh carbon dioxide removal unit shut down. Carbon dioxide removal now had to be performed by lithium-hydroxide canisters.

The crew was now awaiting the launch of the next Progress resupply vehicle from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Progress was bringing repair equipment for the Mir’s Elektron oxygen-generating system, additional oxygen-generating candles, and extra repair gear for the station’s cooling loops as well as routine supplies of food, equipment, and personal effects for the crew. Also, new spacesuits for a planned spacewalk by Tsibliev and Linenger on April 29 were stored aboard the resupply ship, as were replacement lithium-hydroxide canisters, gas masks, and fire extinguishers.

The crew kept working on their science investigations. An unknown hardware failure of the orientation experiment resulted in the only cancellation of an experiment for Linenger. That experiment was to have used French equipment to examine changes to human sensory functions during spaceflight, as well as the subsequent effects experienced during a cosmonaut’s readaptation to gravity.

On April 8, Progress-M 34 docked. Mir now had enough solid-fuel oxygen generators to provide several months of backup oxygen for the station, plus several weeks of gaseous oxygen stored in tanks. Mir had 14 new lithium-hydroxide canisters that could remove carbon dioxide from the air for 21 days if needed as a backup for the Vozdukh carbon dioxide scrubber.

The crew was now constantly doing repair work. Most of the science work was suspended for that week so Linenger could help his crewmates. The crew’s exercise schedule was reduced to one hour per day. By week’s end, they got the Vozdukh system restarted, lowering carbon dioxide levels onboard. It was not a perfect fix, but additional hardware was scheduled for delivery in May by STS-84. Tsibliev and Lazutkin also repaired the cooling loop in Kvant-2 and were able to duct some cooler air into the Base Block. Lazutkin tried to repair the Elektron oxygen-generating system, but he did not succeed.

Besides causing cooling problems, the coolant loop leaks also allowed ethylene glycol to escape into the station. Linenger talked about the situation in an interview. "The ethylene glycol caused the concern that I have as crew physician: inhaling ethylene glycol. We have some respirator filter masks that we wear when we’re doing the repairs in Kvant, so that lessens some of the effect. We’re having some congestion—secondary I’m sure—due to some of the fumes. Temperature, of course, not only affects us but also affects some of the hardware onboard and the ability to remove the moisture from the air. You need a cooling loop for the condenser to work to gather the condensate, so the humidity is up also, which again is not the best thing for equipment. It gets very complex very quickly, and we need to fix our problems."

The environment on Mir was hot, messy, and uncomfortable on Linenger’s 90th day in space. He said he felt fine physically and also felt safe onboard despite the difficulties the crew had to deal with. He was asked if his mission to the Mir had turned out the way he expected.

Tsibliev runs on the Base Block treadmill"Not really," he said, "although we’re out here in the frontier and I guess I expected the unexpected. We’ve been getting some of that. As far as the science return, it is what I expected…. We’ve been running more metal samples and things like that than we thought we’d be able to do. So, in spite of some of the difficulties, we’ve been having a very successful mission. And, some of the system problems—I can’t say that I expected them. But, … I was trained to work on those systems and assist the crew where I could."

In mid-April, Linenger and Tsibliev began preliminary preparations for a five-hour spacewalk to retrieve micrometeorite detection packages located on Mir’s docking module. This would be Linenger’s first extravehicular activity, as well as the first spacewalk by an American from a non-American spacecraft and performed wearing a non-American spacesuit.

Linenger in oxygen mask & goggles The crew had gotten the Elektron system working, but oxygen production was insufficient so they were using supplemental oxygen from the Progress vehicle as required. They also had the Vozdukh carbon dioxide scrubber working again, but they had been unsuccessful in finding leaks in the coolant loops. And, they were now having trouble with condensation buildups. They had discovered great globs of water located behind panels in the Kvant-1 module. In microgravity, even leaks act differently than they do on Earth.

Towards the end of April, the Mir-23 crew worked at their repairs. They kept the space station in an attitude that shaded the Base Block, although that diminished power from the solar arrays. They were allowed to resume their normal two-hours-a-day exercise schedule. Linenger passed his 100th day in orbit, and the Shuttle-Mir Program marked the 400th consecutive day in which an American had been in space. Tsibliev and Linenger prepared for their extravehicular activity.

Both spacewalkers would wear new versions of the Russian Orlan spacesuit. Their first task would be to install the optical properties monitor to the station’s docking module. One of the extravehicular activity’s exercises would make use of the Strela crane, which Mike Foale, future NASA-5 Mir Astronaut, described at the time. Foale said, "It’s basically a long, telescoping tube just like the antenna on a radio. It can telescope in and out, and you can change the telescoping with your hands. It allows one person to clamber along it using the handholds on it to the base. Vasily [Tsibliev] will clamber down there, and he’ll then tell Jerry to hold on, attach the big suitcase, and then Vasily will crank it and he’ll move the whole tube over through the 90 degrees while Jerry is just floating—90 feet away from the rest of the Mir—just on the end of this pole. It bounces around, too. It’s pretty ‘whippy’…. Jerry holds on—holds fast. And, he ties off the crane. At this point, Vasily makes his way along it to join Jerry, and then he and Jerry will install the optical properties monitor on the docking module."

On April 29, Tsibliev and Linenger conducted their 5-hour spacewalk. They tested the new spacesuits, installed the optical properties monitor and a radiation dosimeter, and retrieved several externally mounted material-exposure panels. Linenger has said that the spacewalk, such an amazing experience, was probably the main memory he would take away from his time onboard Mir.

See Jerry Linenger's letters to his son

The Mir-23 crewmembers spent the day after the extravehicular activity resting, and stowing their spacesuits and the articles retrieved from the exterior of the Mir. They resumed more routine activities, including an effort to isolate a leak in a cooling loop in the Kvant-1 module. The Russian flight control team reported the Mir’s oxygen-generation and carbon dioxide removal systems were operating normally. The ground controllers also asked Mir Commander Tsibliev to try out a new way of docking a resupply vehicle, by practicing on the garbage-filled Progress that had recently undocked from the station.

Up to this point, the Russians had used a Kurs ("course") automated docking system, with a manual backup remotely operated rendezvous system operated by Mir’s commander. But, the Kurs system was expensive and heavy. To save weight and cost, they wanted to try the manual system as the primary way to dock a Progress. However, on March 4, when ground controllers sent the Progress toward Mir, Tsibliev was never able to gain control of the vehicle. The Progress narrowly missed hitting Mir.

Linenger described the moment. "I flew to the window that faced the same general direction as the window Sasha and Vasily were using, and did so just in time to see the Progress go screaming by us. Fearing the very real possibility of collision, instinct told me to brace for impact. I gritted my teeth, held my breath, and hoped for a miss. Although the Progress had disappeared from view under the edge of the window, I quickly calculated that, having felt nothing, the Progress must have missed hitting the Base Block."

A similar, failed maneuver would indeed result in a collision—and a crisis—during the next Shuttle-Mir increment, that of Mike Foale.

Jerry Linenger’s increment was nearing its end. The crew spent the first half of May finishing up Linenger’s science investigations, tidying up the station, and working on repairs. They fixed a urine processing system, sopped up condensation, and repaired a condensate recovery system. To get ready for the arrival of the STS-84 crew, they checked the Elektron oxygen system and tapped into the oxygen supplies of the docked Progress vehicle. They kept looking for the small coolant leaks with no success.

On May 9, Linenger summed up his stay onboard Mir. He said, "[There are] two sets of difficulties we’ve had. One is the human difficulty of dealing with those things, and the other one is the space station itself. We’ve overcome all the difficulties. The ultimate test is we’re still alive and well, we’re all here exploring the frontier. On the other hand, it takes a lot of work, it takes daily attention, and it takes a lot of work from smart people on the ground looking over our shoulders and giving some guidance along the way. But, we were able to overcome about as much difficulty as you can imagine."

The crew of STS-84 on the Space Shuttle Atlantis arrived May 16, 1997, with NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale. On May 24, Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center. Jerry Linenger had spent 132 days in orbit, the longest space mission of an American male to that date.

Read more about Jerry Linenger and NASA-4

Read the Congressional Mir Safety Hearing document

Read the Administrator's Letter to Congress
    Concerning the Shuttle-Mir Program

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| Fire and Controversy | Linenger Bio | Letter | Working Outside |
| Failures to Communicate | Meanwhile |

Linenger Biography

NASA portrait of Astronaut Jerry LinengerJerry Linenger was born in Eastpointe, Michigan, and chose to attend the U.S. Naval Academy as much to help his family with expenses as to prepare for a career as an astronaut. He holds one bachelor’s degree in bioscience, two master’s degrees—in systems management and health policy—and two doctorates—in medicine and epidemiology. Among his jobs as a Navy doctor was an assignment as medical advisor to the Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Linenger became an astronaut in 1993. Two years later, he flew on the STS-64 Shuttle mission, which included the first use of lasers for environmental research.

While on Mir, Linenger wrote many "Letters to My Son." His first letter ended with this: "You know, although I am up here floating above the Earth, I am still an Earthling. I feel the pain of separation, the pride of a father, and the loneliness of a husband away from his wife like an Earthling. And maybe even a bit more acutely."

Linenger and his wife had their second son soon after Linenger returned to Earth from Mir. Leaving NASA soon after his Mir experience, Linenger and his family moved to Michigan. He has published a book about his experiences, titled Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir.

Read more about Jerry Linenger and NASA-4.


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It's All Downhill from Here

From Jerry Linenger's Letters to my Son

April 30, 1997

All spacewalks are different; and a spacewalk on the surface of a sprawling space station has a different flavor than one conducted inside the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle, than one dangling outside a capsule attached to an umbilical, than one rambling on the Moon’s surface.

Imagine this. You are in scuba gear. Your vision is restricted by the size of your underwater mask. Your fins, wetsuit, and gloves make you clumsy and heavy. The water is frigid; in fact it is thickly frozen overhead with only one entry-exit hole drilled. Your life depends on your gear functioning properly the entire time. The farther away you venture, the farther away the escape hole in the ice, and the less you can tolerate any failure whatsoever.

There is no bottom. Up and down are confused. Your path is not straight, but rather [is] around obstacles on a constantly convex, falling away, prime surface. As you round one obstacle, the next appears, and soon enough it is difficult to determine from where you came.

You are not in water, but on a cliff. Crawling, slithering, gripping, reaching. You are not falling from the cliff; instead, the whole cliff is falling and you are on it. You convince yourself that it is okay for the cliff and yourself on the cliff to be falling because when you look out you see no bottom. You just fall and fall and fall.

The Sun sets swiftly. Blackness. Not merely dark, but absolute black. You see nothing. Nothing. You [grip] the handhold ever more tightly. You convince yourself that it is okay to be falling, alone, nowhere, in the blackness. You loosen your grip.

Your eyes adjust, and you can make out forms. Another human being silhouetted against the heavens. When it first got dark, you were feet first falling. Five minutes later, as the cliff itself rotates, you feel as if you have reached the crest of the roller-coaster, and are now barreling down steeply—steeply to the point that you feel you will flip headfirst out of your seat—toward Earth. You come out of your seat, and are falling spread-eagle. Now headfirst. You want to flip back upright. You can’t. You decide it is okay to be diving headfirst into nothing.

You need to work with your hands. You let go. You depend on the two tethers you placed on handholds to hold [you]. You rotate, twist, and float—all randomly and uncontrolled—still the cliff is falling and rotating. You know you are falling with it, you tell yourself surely you are falling with it because you just attached your tethers; yet it is difficult to discount the sensation that you are moving away, alone, detached. You feel as if you are at the end of a fishing pole, which gets longer and longer and thinner and thinner at the end, and you [are] the fish hooked to its flimsy end. It sways back and forth; you, being attached, sway back and forth [with it]. The pole no longer looks rigid and straight, but rather like a skinny S-curve. You are hanging to the thinnest limb of the tallest tree in the wind. The tree is falling. You convince yourself that it is a strong oak; that the limb will stay attached and not fracture, and that the forest bottom is far away.

In the midst of all of this, you carry out your work calmly, methodically. You snap a picture or two, and below notice the Straits of Gibraltar narrowly opening to the Mediterranean.

That is how it felt, best as I can describe it.


Read Jerry Linenger's Letters to my Son

Read other letters written from Mir


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Working Outside

Tsibliev EVA - on boom, side view of Mir over earth   Russian cosmonauts performed spacewalks or extravehicular activities (EVAs) during all of the Shuttle-Mir increments. However, during EVAs, astronauts and cosmonauts do not "walk" in space. They are actually in their own orbits around the Earth, and their spacesuits are, in effect, miniature spacecraft. EVA suits protect astronauts from the dangers of space—including heat, cold, and vacuum—for more than six hours at a time.

Linenger (blue) and Tsibliev (red) on Mir EVA NASA’s extravehicular maneuvering unit (EMU) suit is more flexible and more complicated than the Russian Orlan suit, and it is harder to get in and out of for astronauts. An astronaut first puts on the EMU pants and then rises into the top. The Orlan suit has a door in back—sometimes compared to a refrigerator door—through which a cosmonaut can easily enter. The Russian spacesuits fit roughly between the 40th and 60th percentile of the Russian population, and cosmonaut candidates must fit these size limits. NASA spacesuits fit between the 5th and 95th percentile of American adults, allowing NASA to select astronauts from a wide variety of people.

Linenger and Tsibliev wearing cooling garments and headgear View of Docking Module During STS-76, Astronauts Rich Clifford and Linda Godwin conducted the first American EVA outside Mir. During the Shuttle-Mir Program, four joint spacewalks occurred—NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger with Mir-23 Commander Vasily Tsibliev; NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale with Mir-24 Commander Anatoly Solovyev; NASA-6 Mir Astronaut David Wolf also with Solovyev; and during STS-86, when crewmates Scott Parazynski and Vladimir Titov both wore American EMU suits for their joint EVA.


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Failures to Communicate

 Linenger on ham radio in Base Block In this new era when everyone seems to be talking on a cellular telephone, it is important to remember that instant communication isn’t always as easy as it looks. During Shuttle-Mir in the 1990s, communications proved to be a major headache for NASA.

For example, NASA Space Shuttle astronauts are accustomed to having virtually constant voice communications with the support teams on the ground during missions, but Mir generally offered only one 10- to 20-minute "window" during each 90-minute orbit. As a resident on the Russian space station, an American astronaut typically participated only briefly during portions of two of these "com" passes a day. Available to the U.S. crewmember were fax, a primitive form of e-mail, and amateur radio links. None of these media worked as well as they usually do on Earth. However, ham amateur radio operators on Earth provided the Mir astronauts with important communications, passing on messages and handling "packets" of electronic mail.

On Earth, American managers and engineers were accustomed to immediate telephone communications between NASA Centers, but the phone system in Russia worked poorly. The Russian postal service was undependable. Most verbal communications—both Mir-to-ground and on the ground between managers—were carried out in Russian, which few Americans understood well. Further, the time zone difference between Texas and Russia was not conducive to creating "normal work hours" for the international teams.

NASA worked to meet the communications needs. Ground teams planned and "scripted" conferences with the Mir astronauts in advance. Written communications were used extensively. Also, the amateur ham radio conversations helped, especially with family and social communications. Efficient telephone links were installed between NASA’s Russian office and its American Centers. NASA personnel often hand-carried mail when traveling to and from Russia.

But, it never got easy; and at times it was much worse than other times. During NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger’s stay, communications ability became so poor that Linenger decided to forego voice contact with the ground and to do all his communicating via e-mail. In Linenger’s words, "Communications were so bad that I had to give up on them."

Linenger’s Flight Surgeon, Tom Marshburn, said, "We had very limited com. It was often very ratty." At Linenger’s recommendation, Marshburn said, "We went ahead and tried to do all of our communication by e-mail using the packet system. So, we had no voice communication with him—for about two months. We’d hear his voice coming down on the Russian loop, and we would have a chance to say a few words to him. But, the standard com—for about two months, we didn’t have it."

Marshburn thought that this arrangement was worth trying out, in terms of basic communications, but he also felt that it created a psychological "disconnect between the teams." He said that Linenger "became more isolated in our minds, and probably we did in his mind as well. That didn’t affect our operations so much, but there was that slight disconnect there." Also, the hardware was unable to keep up with the e-mail, and there was so much information that it could be days sometimes before information got sent up, said Marshburn. "So, we’d keep trying to plan further and further ahead. I’d say we never got more than two days ahead in the information we could get to him. So, he was pretty much flying solo a lot of the time, without any voice communication."

Shuttle-Mir Program Manager Frank Culbertson described the situation from a ground control viewpoint: "You come AOS [acquisition of signal], and you have a whole bunch of stuff you’ve got to tell the crew…. They’ve got a whole bunch of stuff they want to tell you—or maybe they don’t want to talk to you at all…. The Russians call it a telephone game. So, you’ve got to be careful about it."

Culbertson said that some of the NASA Operations Leads and Flight Surgeons who did most of the voice communications "learned how to do it very well. They would come in very relaxed at the beginning of a com pass—not jump right into some kind of set agenda. They would come in as positive as they could, and then react to the crewmembers’ mood, to try to fit in with them.

If they didn’t get everything said or done, they’d wait ’til the next time."

NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha thought that the voice communications were often an interference with his work. However, NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale saw them as an opportunity to stay close to his Russian crewmates. Furthermore, after the Progress collision with Mir, Foale thought the Russian ground controllers felt more comfortable with his taking an active part in crucial decisions because of his previous participation in the voice communications.

And, it wasn’t just the way information was exchanged that turned out to be different about the Shuttle-Mir Program. It was also how the information was expressed—a cultural difference Culbertson defined as the American "impetuosity about getting things done." Space Shuttle Commander Jim Wetherbee related a lesson he received in how to talk from cosmonaut Vladimir Titov: "Titov one day said to me, ‘I notice that the Russians talk very normally on the radio.’"

The Americans didn’t. Wetherbee realized that Americans tend to talk like fighter pilots. "You use a military jargon—a lingo that is very quick and terse…. Titov said to me, ‘Jim, one day you Americans will learn. It is better to talk.’"


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Meanwhile on Earth

The Mir fire and its aftermath changed the Shuttle-Mir experience on Earth, too. Concerns for the crew’s safety dominated, within the program itself, the world news media, and the U.S. Congress. As a result of the fire, NASA’s operational involvement in Mir expanded again.

The 10:35 p.m. (Moscow time) fire surprised everyone, but it surprised American space managers later than it did the Russians since NASA officials weren’t told about it until the next morning. Operations Lead Tony Sang walked into the control room about nine o’clock the morning after the fire, and he noticed many Russian life-support engineers were in the room. In Sang’s words, "[Vladimir Solovyev, the Lead Flight Director,] came up to me, in his broken English, saying, ‘We have a little problem.’"

According to Sang, "Ground [communications, or com] pass was about to start, so I put on my headset and I listened. I told [Solovyev], ‘Well, if there was a problem,’—and evidently it was a life-support problem—‘then you can have the com.’ So, I started listening and I recognized the word for ‘fire.’ Right then I went, ‘Oh, no.’"

Sang telephoned Program Manager Frank Culbertson in Houston, where it was the middle of the night. "I told him, ‘I don’t know the details, but from our last ground pass … it sounds like everybody’s okay.’"

Jerry Linenger had already reported from Mir. He had done pulmonary exams on the crew and found everyone to be unharmed in that respect. The immediate crisis had passed.

No NASA official had been alerted at the time of the fire. According to Sang, "I talked to Solovyev, … and he told me the lowdown of what happened. I told him, ‘Why wasn’t I called the night before?’ He said, ‘They made a terrible mistake, not calling you.’"

The Mir fire emergency was unexpected and largely unprecedented. NASA’s three previous Mir astronauts had experienced much safer missions. Also, there had not been a Russian space station fire event of this magnitude ever before. There had been a smaller oxygen generator fire onboard Mir’s precursor, the Salyut, but it had entailed the burning of a generator’s cloth covering. This fire had involved the generator’s chemical core.

Flight Surgeon Tom Marshburn later remarked that had NASA previously asked the Russians, "‘So, have you had problems with this device?’ they probably would have said, ‘No. We’ve been using it for this many years and really haven’t had any problems.’" In Marshburn’s opinion, "You would probably have to talk to them for a while before they said what that little incident was on Salyut, because they really would feel like it was not a big deal."

After the fire, both the Flight Surgeon and Operations Lead were given cell phones and a better procedure for alerts was developed.

Another change in the program’s management was the creation of the position of a Mir Systems Engineer, dedicated to following the health of the space station’s life-supporting systems. Program Deputy Manager James Van Laak later spoke about this increasing engagement by NASA in the day-to-day operations onboard Mir. "When we have … questions, our people are able to go down the hall [here at Johnson Space Center] and talk to the specialists and get good answers. I would be overstating it to say that any of our people is expert in the Russian systems, because … they’re not built in the Western engineering traditions. But, pretty much without exception, their systems are intelligently designed. And, we have confidence that all the critical systems will function very well."

The fire was NASA’s first big lesson since Skylab on how different the operation of a long-duration space station is, especially when compared to a shorter-duration Space Shuttle flight. Such emergencies not withstanding, Frank Culbertson later spoke about the need for patience—most of the time. "There are a few things in a station environment that you’ve got to immediately jump to and do something about real quickly. Those few things are readily identified, like a fire or depressurization. Almost everything else, you go, ‘Darn. It broke.’ And, as long as you’re still breathing and you’ve still got a way to escape, then there’s really no need to panic or to get excited about it. You just say, ‘Okay, ground. This broke. What do you want to do? Do you want to work on this? Or, do you want to leave it for now and come back to it in a few days?’

"And so, we’ve had to learn a more patient way of operating, in space and on the ground than we’re used to on the Shuttle, because the Shuttle flight is very limited. When something breaks on a Shuttle flight … [Mission Control] brings in the cavalry, and you work on it really aggressively…. Because you have got to be able to land before you run out of consumables, and you’ve got to land in the same vehicle that’s got the problem. That’s not true on the station. You’re not going to land in the same vehicle. You’re not going to ever bring it back, … and [its] life is extremely long." Culbertson’s patience and judgment would be tested again during the next American mission on Mir.

In April 1997, two months after the fire, the U.S. House Science Committee adopted an amendment to the NASA authorization bill, sponsored by committee Republican chairman James Sensenbrenner, Jr., and ranking Democratic Representative George Brown. The document stated that NASA must certify that Mir met or exceeded NASA safety standards. (Sensenbrenner would later ask NASA’s Inspector General to conduct a review of the program’s safety.)

In May 1997, Wilbur Trafton, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Flight, invited the Russian Space Agency to fly one cosmonaut each on STS-89 and STS-91 to continue the learning experience of STS-63, -71, -84, and -86.

During Jerry Linenger’s entire mission, future NASA Mir astronauts continued to train for their durations onboard Mir. Also training in Star City was American astronaut Bill Shepherd, who was scheduled to command the first Expedition to the International Space Station. About the safety of flying on Mir, Linenger’s successor Mike Foale said at the time, "I think the Soyuz is really the biggest insurance ticket they have. And, it’s the safest and the most proven they have. With the presence of the Soyuz descent capsule there the whole time, I will never feel particularly vulnerable. The fire is the worst case that you can imagine, I think."

Little did Foale know that he would experience a collision that was every bit as frightening.

Read about Foale's experiences on Mir

Next Chapter - STS-84: Delivery and Pick Up!