Messages From Mir

The New Yorker
How the mistakes made on the Russian space station bring us closer to Mars.
October 20, 1997
It was ten at night, the day had been a long one, and before going to sleep Vasily Tsibliyev wanted to call Tamara Globa. She was turning forty, and there was a small party at her Moscow apartment. True to the nature of Russia’s phone system, the connection was rather poor. “Hello, dear!” Tsibliyev shouted. “Do you hear me O.K.?” His voice sounded as distant as the stars, but that was understandable, because Tsibliyev was calling from the Mir space station, which orbits Earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour.

Globa had been told by Mission Control to expect the call, so she made sure that nobody was using her phone at the appointed hour, on March 16th. She rushed to the kitchen on the first ring, and, after everyone had gathered around, the voice of Tsibliyev, Mir’s commander, drifted down from the heavens. For Mission Control, situated outside Moscow, this bit of magic was everyday stuff. Because the morale of cosmonauts can slip if they feel isolated, phone calls and video conferences between orbiting cosmonauts and their non-orbiting friends and family are arranged regularly. Almost anything goes. If a cosmonaut wants to chat with a politician or an actor, that can be arranged, and if a cosmonaut wants to talk with an astrologer that, too, can be arranged, as happened when Tsibliyev was patched through to Globa, one of Russia’s foremost psychics.

Early in the evening, several months later, I was sitting across from Globa in a Moscow restaurant. She was wearing white, from jeans to a long-sleeved shirt, and the outfit served as a perfect contrast to her dark eyes, which have a gravitational pull of their own. In Russia, a land of the superstitious and the mystical, she is a true celebrity: her predictions can become front-page news, and her column in the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan is enormously popular. Technology’s advance has not nudged astrologers aside; it has, rather, seemed to push them ahead. As I sipped coffee with one of Russia’s most celebrated, she reviewed the events that led to her birthday greeting from space.

Globa met Tsibliyev in 1992, during an environmental conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “It was a great time,” she says. They saw each other a few times afterward, and occasionally talked on the phone. There was no shortage of things to talk about. Just before Tsibliyev took off for Mir, Globa had dinner with him and several other cosmonauts at their training center, and she warned that his upcoming flight would be difficult. By the time Tsibliyev called from Mir in mid-March, a fire had nearly forced the cosmonauts to abandon ship. “Listen, Tamara, what you told us then is precisely what happened,” he said, according to a tape of the call. Globa gently cautioned that “another complicated nuance” would strike Mir, but it would not be as bad as the fire. Tsibliyev’s response was a heartfelt “Thank God.”

It may seem odd that the highly educated commander of a hundred-and-fifty-ton space station would phone a psychic who trundles around Moscow with dog-eared astrological charts under her arm. (Imagine the commander of Apollo 13 taking a break to chat with Jeane Dixon.) But both Russian and American psychologists who study the “human factor” in long-duration space travel have learned that few astronauts are invincible; most become all the more human, all the more quirky, as their days in space slip into weeks and months. Space is a hostile environment with no parallel on Earth, and in its pressureless embrace even the iron-willed can turn to mush. Consider the confinement of a prison, the claustrophobia of a submarine, and the tedium of an Arctic research post and you begin to sense the physical and psychological rigors of living in a space station. And if the station happens to be eleven years old and falling apart, with a fire breaking out, and noxious liquids leaking into the air, and the cabin temperature soaring, and garbage piling up, and an errant cargo ship puncturing the hull, and the main computer crashing, and the oxygen system shutting down—all of which happened on Tsibliyev’s watch, which began in early February—it becomes unimaginably worse.

“These are very talented and capable people but they’re subject to the same kind of foibles as an ordinary person,” Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon and the author of a book about the psychological aspects of selecting astronauts, told me. “They have emotional strengths and they have emotional weaknesses, and they bring that with them to spaceflight. On short missions, it’s not as common for those to be manifested. Motivation and determination can overcome a lot. But there is a break-off point, probably around three to four weeks, where no amount of motivation or determination is going to get you through it.”

Astronauts are performing missions different from the ones they performed in earlier times, and they need more patience and less bravado. They are not rocketing into the cosmos inside relatively primitive vessels that either blow up or don’t. Mir (the word means both “peace” and “world” in Russian) has been inhabited almost continually since 1986, with crew members usually staying aloft for six months at a time and filling their weightless days with scientific and medical experiments, maintenance and repairs, physical exercise, cooking, reading, kvetching—whatever. Of course, the routine can vary. Michael Foale returned to America on October 6th, after a four-month sojourn that included a nearly catastrophic collision between Mir and an unmanned cargo vessel. Foale was replaced by David Wolf, the sixth American on the station since 1995, and if Foale’s experience is any guide Wolf is also heading for interesting times. But the tragicomedy of recent months has obscured this truth: that Mir, dilapidated as it is, is a glimpse of the future.

Russia and America, a cosmic odd couple, plan to continue their space alliance in the years ahead. Next year, the first components of the International Space Station, also known as Alpha, will be sent into orbit in a project that will cost at least forty billion dollars; the first crew is to arrive in January of 1999. If all goes well, a manned mission to Mars could be launched before 2010. In these next phases of space exploration, the incidents that are perceived as Mir-only events—human errors and mechanical glitches in space, political squabbles and mixed signals on the ground—are more than likely to be repeated. And it is probable that the actors who participate in whatever comes next will be grateful that these dress rehearsals, however embarrassing, took place.

Russia’s cosmonauts are trained a few miles outside Moscow, in Star City—Zvyozdny Gorodok—a gated enclave off a two-lane highway. Built in secrecy decades ago, Star City is open for business these days; it even has its own Web site, and if you are American you will be likely to be waved inside, thanks to the approximately four hundred and seventy-three million dollars that NASA is paying the Russian Space Agency for flying American astronauts and their research equipment aboard Mir. The joint program, spawned in 1993 at a summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin, was intended as a triumph of post-Cold War amity. It was a useful way to bolster the Russian economy (and insure that Russia’s imperilled rocket scientists would not turn to Libya or North Korea for a paycheck) while giving America a chance to learn something about long-duration space travel. Before Mir, America had operated just one short-lived space station—Skylab—which was launched in 1973 and played host to only three crews, the last of which stayed aloft eighty-four days. By Russian standards, eighty-four days in space is hardly worth mentioning, for in 1995 cosmonaut Valery Polyakov set a new record by spending four hundred and thirty-nine days in space.

Star City is not quite a city. It’s more like a small town, since about five thousand people call it home. There are apartment buildings and food stores and schools, and even a post office and a movie theatre. It has the look and feel of a suburban community college designed in the sixties—the architectural equivalent of a face in the crowd. Past the entrance, a brief stretch of forest yields to a statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space—in 1961—and one of the few Soviet-era heroes to have lost no lustre in the Russian era. Ahead, beside a murky lake, is a three-story building in which a small contingent from NASA lives and works. Its members occupy the second floor, and they have created a technological and cultural oasis, with a step machine in the corridor, brownie mix in the kitchen, and high-speed computers in their offices. They use E-mail, and the Russians have rotary telephones. It’s as if the two outfits were spaceships orbiting at different altitudes. “We’re accustomed to sitting down at our computers and getting things done,” Brent Jett, a shuttle pilot who heads the NASA office, told me when I visited Star City in August. “But it’s different here. If General Glaskov”—who runs Star City—”is not in his office, his phone will ring and no one will answer it.”

There is a full-scale Mir simulator in the training facilities at Star City, and in a visitors’ gallery the principal item on display is a duplicate of Mir’s toilet. It’s not pretty to look at, and cooler space gizmos exist, but almost every visitor asks how cosmonauts go to the bathroom in weightless conditions, so the goods have been put on display. It’s an angular tube with a funnel at one end for collecting urine and a container at the other end for collecting solid matter; a pump suctions away the waste. Life is gritty on Mir. There’s no shower, so cosmonauts use moist towelettes to keep themselves clean, or relatively clean. There are no special sleeping quarters; at bedtime, crew members hook their sleeping bags to a wall in whichever module they prefer (Mir, a hundred and seven feet long and ninety feet wide, consists of six modules linked to the core module), and they try to give their sleeping nook a sense of home, putting family photos and other earthly mementos wherever they can. Foale slept in the Spektr science module before it was punctured in the collision. Wolf is sleeping in the air lock of the Kvant-2 biological-research module. It’s not luxurious, but the view—of Earth—can’t be topped.

I walked into the simulator hall, took off my shoes, and stepped inside the core module, which contains, among other things, the main control panels, a small table for meals, and a treadmill and a cycle, both fitted into the floor. Although the module’s external shape is tubular, the inside is rectangular; it’s roughly the size of a school bus, though cluttered. A step or two in any direction leads to a wall or a hatch or an oxygen cannister. The air is stuffy and hot, and the ventilators make a loud droning noise similar to the racket inside a prop plane. There are switches and buttons and handles everywhere, to the left and the right and above. It has the feel of a room lined with out-of-date mainframe computers, the feel of being inside a machine. After six minutes, I am ready to leave. It is hard to imagine staying in such a place for six months, as Tsibliyev did, and when I got my first glimpse of him, a day later, I was surprised at how good he looked.

On August 14th, Tsibliyev and his crewmate, Alexander Lazutkin, returned to Earth. Their Soyuz capsule landed hard on the steppes of Kazakhstan, the braking rockets having malfunctioned, but the descent was slowed to an easily survivable speed by a huge parachute. Within a few hours of landing, the two men were heading home on a special Aeroflot jet, feasting on caviar and cucumbers. As evening fell, I joined a flock of generals and colonels waiting for them at a military air-port near Star City. Tsibliyev walked from the plane without assistance and was hugged by his wife as his daughter broke into happy tears. There were some cheers, and the military brass executed the smiles and handshakes appropriate for such homecomings, but the event had an odd undertone. Even the weather was strangely off: on a mid-August evening, I could see my breath in the cold air. As the cosmonauts were being driven from the tarmac in an old yellow bus, a soldier banged on its windows and pumped his fist in the air. It was a way of saying, “Don’t let the bastards get you!” Everyone knew what it meant, and why it was necessary.

Two days later, at Star City’s House of Cosmonauts, Tsibliyev held a press conference. He entered the conference hall wearing a snappy Reebok tracksuit, and smiling. The event had a slightly surreal soundtrack, because there was an unrelated celebration going on outside, and a military band was playing a medley of Broadway show tunes, including “Hello, Dolly!” and “New York, New York.” Tsibliyev quickly made it clear that he didn’t intend to submit to his critics. Being agitated, he rambled in his answers, but he got his message across: Mir is falling apart because Russia doesn’t have enough money to run it properly. “The cause lies with problems on earth,” he said. “It’s connected with the economy, with our affairs in general. Even the equipment needed to live aboard the station and that we requested to be sent—and we’re not talking about coffee, tea, and milk—they just don’t exist. The factories don’t work, or have insufficient supplies, or they ask for, excuse me, crazy prices.”
Russian officials were soon forced to admit that they do not replace equipment when its life expectancy is reached; they wait for equipment to break down, and then they replace it. Tsibliyev sidestepped a question about the collision, for which he has been blamed, saying that he, too, had questions about it. His mood turned dark at times. “I don’t know, maybe someone wanted us to return here as corpses,” he mused at one point.

Tsibliyev is no novice. In 1993, he had his first sojourn on Mir—a mission that lasted a hundred and ninety-seven days. It went smoothly except for one incident, when a Soyuz capsule he was piloting bumped into Mir during a reconnaissance foray. I talked with a number of Tsi-bliyev’s colleagues—fellow-cosmonauts, officials at Mission Control, and psychologists who monitored his two missions—and they described him in the same way: diligent, skilled, steady. “He is a person of high responsibility,” Alexander Serebrov, who had been the flight engineer on Tsibliyev’s first mission, told me. “If he says he’ll do something, he does it. He would not sleep until we finished our jobs.” But in Russia, as in America, all astronauts are not created equal. A golden few always stand apart, and Tsibliyev was not among them. His go-by-the-book diligence may have been his undoing. When problems began piling up, he tried to solve them all, cutting back on his sleep and taking the blame for breakdowns beyond his control. According to Alexander Sled, a psychologist who monitors cosmonauts while they are on Mir, Tsibliyev blamed himself for everything. “This is good in a normal space mission, because there are a lot of things going on that must be taken care of,” Sled told me. “But if there are too many problems happening it’s a bad thing.” The human psyche, like an electrical circuit, can take only so much before it shorts out. That is one of Mir’s messages for the future.

The Russians have flown long-duration missions since the seventies, when the first Salyut stations were put into orbit, and they’ve experienced a startling range of human-factor problems, including bitter arguments between crew members and conflicts between crew members and Mission Control. At least two missions were cut short for what are believed to have been stress-related problems with the crew. Two years ago, a highly regarded cosmonaut nearing the end of a long mission refused to perform a space walk; he said that it was unnecessary. Such conflicts are not a purely Russian phenomenon; the last crew on Skylab got so annoyed at the rapid pace set by Mission Control in Houston that its members unilaterally took a day off. Of the five Americans who have completed their missions on Mir, one became depressed while on board (he cited fatigue and isolation) and another angered NASA officials by skipping or else cutting short his daily radio sessions with them (he said the sessions got in the way of his work).

The Russian Space Agency uses a variety of diversions to keep everyone as healthy as possible. Sports programs are beamed to Mir, sometimes live, as was the case with highlights of the Atlanta Olympic Games. Resupply ships are packed with books, magazines, letters, movies, and even birthday presents. Whenever a resupply ship arrives—every few months—the atmosphere turns Christmas-like, with the cosmonauts opening their packages and laughing and staying up past their bedtime. There’s also a ham radio on Mir, and in spare moments crew members flip through the dial and chat with strangers on Earth about the weather, politics, sports—anything to get a break from their fishbowl life. John Blaha, a four-time shuttle astronaut whose four-month sojourn on Mir ended in January, spent as much as half an hour a day on the radio. Mir uses frequencies that are widely known in the ham-radio community and are posted on the Web, so there is never a shortage of strangers wanting to talk shop. “You’d turn the volume up and people all over the world are, like, ringing this telephone,” Blaha told me. “They’re all just stepping on each other just trying to talk to me.” A sports fan, Blaha would squeeze baseball and football scores from them (preferably Yankee and Cowboy results), and in return he’d talk about life on Mir: “I’d tell them what we’re doing. I’d tell them, ‘Hey, we’re in the middle of lunch right now, we’re all cooking. Valery’s a little busy, but he’s listening. Sasha’s listening, too. Sasha’s making himself some rice, making himself some soup.’ “

The laptop computer has also been of considerable help. A NASA team created an ingenious program, Crew On-orbit Support System, which is loaded onto an I.B.M. Thinkpad. coss, as it’s known, is updated for each American aboard Mir, and includes training simulators as well as a digital selection of family snapshots and surprise video clips. For example, an astronaut wakes up on Father’s Day and a message on the computer tells him to access a particular file; a click of the mouse, and the screen is filled with a video of his children wishing him a happy Father’s Day. coss also includes a football game (which Blaha played) and Myst (which none of the astronauts have played). For the Russians, NASA provided an English-tutorial program.

If you have the ill fortune to be the commander of Mir when it suffers a plague of mishaps, however, there’s little that can lift your spirits—not even a viewing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which Foale brought to the station. Such was the unlucky predicament of Vasily Tsibliyev. Soon after he arrived on Mir, a defective oxygen-generating cannister caught fire, creating one of the most serious crises in the station’s history. The crew began preparing for an emergency escape, but they were able to extinguish the fire after approximately ten minutes. They wore surgical masks for several days to protect themselves from lingering fumes.

Shortly afterward, the station experienced a serious leak in its cooling system, and the temperature rose above ninety-five degrees in the core module. The crew worried about health risks from inhaling the leaked antifreeze. Jerry Linenger, the American on Mir at the time, told me that Tsibliyev did not trust reassurances from Russia’s Mission Control, and so he asked Linenger to find out what NASA thought of the hazards. Tsibliyev was concerned that, because a crewless Mir would eventually fall out of orbit, Mission Control might sacrifice the crew’s health in order to keep the station aloft. According to a candid report by NASA’s inspector general, “The … commander repeatedly argued with ground control and showed considerable irritation. The commander also indicated that he believed that ground control did not take his concerns seriously or misinterpreted his statements.”

Tsibliyev was sleeping less and worrying more, and this led to more stress, which led to less sleep and more worries. Communication glitches were reducing the amount of time available for chats with family and friends, and, while this may seem like a minor point, family meetings provide an enormous lift to cosmonaut morale. Tsibliyev continued to function well enough, but after three or four months in space skills that are honed to perfection on Earth begin to deteriorate for all astronauts, even the invincible ones, and Tsibliyev was entering the danger zone in less than ideal shape. This was noticed at the Institute for Biomedical Problems, which closely monitors cosmonauts in space, looking for signs of trouble even in their talks with Mission Control. “His vocabulary became less rich, and ungrammatical,” the psychologist Nina Zaprissa said.

On June 25th, Tsibliyev was trying to perform a difficult practice docking of an unmanned cargo vessel when it crashed into Spektr, puncturing its skin. A life-threatening depressurization began, an alarm sounded, and the crew heard the hiss of air leaking from the station. They had perhaps half an hour to fix the problem before abandoning ship. They moved fast, sealing the hatch that separated Spektr from the rest of Mir. But be-fore shutting the hatch they had to disconnect cables that transferred power from Spektr’s solar panels to the other parts of the station; the result was that Mir lost nearly half its power. Mir was not quite lost in space, but it was certainly crippled. So was its commander. A few weeks later, Tsibliyev informed Mission Control that he was suffering heart palpitations. He was put on medication and was declared medically unfit for a planned space walk. Humiliation does not come in heavier doses.

The situation worsened on July 17th, when his crewmate, Alexander Lazutkin, unplugged the main computer by mistake, thereby sending Mir into free drift and depleting its battery power. This seemed to be the crew that couldn’t shoot straight on a station that couldn’t stay in orbit. A month later, after a new crew replaced Tsibliyev and Lazutkin, the power cables from Spektr were reattached through a new hatch, so Mir regained most of its normal power. Spektr, though, remained sealed off, punctured and airless. Between August 18th and September 22nd, the main computer crashed four times and the main oxygen system broke down repeatedly, a reminder that the eleven-year-old station was built to be used for just five years. Not only was Mir old but it seemed jinxed: a stray satellite nearly rammed it in mid-September. But somehow, amazingly, Mir, like the country that built it, survives.

Back on Earth, Tsibliyev’s reputation seemed to undergo a minor recovery. He had been fingered as the main culprit behind the June collision with the cargo vessel, but an increasing body of evidence began to point to crucial errors by Mission Control. The docking had been ill planned and would have been difficult for any cosmonaut to pull off, especially if he were as fatigued as Tsibliyev. That was only partial solace for Tsibliyev, who probably won’t fly again, as I learned from Victor Afanasiev, one of Russia’s top guns. Afanasiev is broad-shouldered and blunt in an old-fashioned way, and when we met he gave me a business card that said, in English, “Pilot-Cosmonaut of the U.S.S.R., Hero of the Soviet Union.” He reminded me that the commander of Mir is responsible for whatever happens on his watch, including mistakes by others. After citing a cosmonaut whose mission was filled with problems, Afanasiev declared that after coming home “that man found himself another job.”

An hour north of Moscow—past venders selling vegetables and motor oil, and a new McDonald’s, bright and fluorescent, an alien presence in the gritty terrain outside Russia’s capital—is a building with no gate or guard, just an unruly patch of grass in front and a small plaque next to the entrance. The plaque says, in Russian and English, “Mission Control Centre.”

Inside the threadbare building, there’s not much in the way of urgent activity; secretaries sit at their desks watching television or watering plants. A larger-than-life bust of Lenin, with a pair of red plastic flowers at its base, presides over a reception area near the control room. But a few yards away a dozen or so men and women from NASA are at work. Their crowded office has few luxuries or extras except for a Texas flag (most are from Houston) and a coffee machine. A cartoon taped on a wall shows Mir shaped like a broken-down car with its hood up, and an astronaut fiddling with the en-gine is saying, “Try it again.” The delegation from Texas is young, mostly in their thirties, dressed casually in a Dockers way. They are intense, these men and women. They are working for a federal agency that hopes, in the relatively near future, to send astronauts to Mars and beyond.

Their Russian counterparts tend to be a decade or two older, and their horizons are more limited. They are a low-key bunch, who instead of laptops have pens and paper. The future is not so heady for them: Russia’s space program is contracting. It is more appealing to go into business, for there one can earn much more than a few hundred dollars a month, which is what most of the workers at Mission Control are paid. Those workers have been in their jobs for quite some time; many of them were here during the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking, a high point of the détente era, and, unlike their colleagues from NASA, they don’t get particularly anxious when something goes wrong in space. Mir has had approximately fifteen hundred malfunctions in its lifetime.

The control room has the dimensions of a very large movie theatre, but instead of a screen up front there is a projected wall-to-wall map of the world, on which a slow-moving dot shows Mir’s position as it loops around the planet. A pair of advertising banners are slung under the map—one for a Russian chocolate company, the other for Hewlett-Packard. Russia’s space program is so short of money that commercial plugs have become the norm. Cosmonauts have filmed television commercials aboard Mir, and the most recent one, for an Israeli company, featured Vasily Tsibliyev playing with a weightless blob of milk. In post-communist Russia, the entrepreneurial zeal of the Russian Space Agency makes NASA seem like a stuffy socialist outfit: everything has a price tag—even space walks and manual dockings, for which cosmonauts receive thousand-dollar bonuses.
The atmosphere at Mission Control is grim. Along with Mir’s regular breakdowns, human and mechanical, the Russians must deal with the inquisitive media, something they’ve never had to do before. The job often falls to Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director. Solovyov often wears a snappy sports jacket, so he easily trumps the fashion-challenged hacks, and he has the superior bearing of a hot-shot cosmonaut (which he once was), a bearing that says, I have done things you cannot dream of doing, I have seen things you will never see—which, by the way, is true. Yet for all that, Solovyov seems to be in a permanent state of exhaustion and pique. The domestic media, although they don’t cover Mir very closely, tend to be uncharitable and less than perfectly accurate. The foreign media are aggressive, lunging to attention whenever anything goes wrong; as a news spectacle, Mir is an irresistible hybrid of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Three Stooges.”

Solovyov has a hard time smiling even when things are going his way. After the new crew reconnected the power cables from Spektr, in August, restoring most of Mir’s lost power, he slumped into a chair in the briefing room and declared that “nothing can throw us out of the saddle.” He could not leave well enough alone, though, and went on, “Everything that’s printed in the papers, I’m sorry, but we don’t pay any attention to it. It doesn’t matter to me what the world thinks.” As he got up to leave, he gave the knife a bitter twist: “I assume you’ll print what I said.” Later, when NASA erroneously announced that Mir’s oxygen system was nonfunctional again, prompting the media to lunge to attention once more, Solovyov was in good form. “To our greatest joy, and I think, to your deep disappointment, nothing extraordinary has happened aboard the station,” he told reporters.

Relations with NASA are more complex. Russians are the masters of long-duration space travel, they put the first satellite and the first human being into space, and they took the first pictures of the dark side of the moon. Despite the uncertain conditions on Mir, no one has died or been seriously injured on the station. Malfunctions tend not to disturb the Russian psyche, in space or on Earth; this is a nation of mechanical improvisation, a nation in which grandmothers perform road repairs on busted Ladas. If Mir’s computer or oxygen system breaks, the attitude at Mission Control is: Relax, we’ll fix it. That’s usually correct, but it can be a terrifying wait, and one feels that it will be only a matter of time before something truly disastrous occurs. When I asked Viktor Blagov, the deputy flight controller, whether NASA worries too much, he chuckled and said that NASA is obsessive about documents. “We don’t have these documents. We take a problem directly and have a meeting of the main specialists … and we discuss it without documents. After that we have only one document. This document is named ‘decision.’ ” Blagov, who is sixty-one, joined the Soviet space program in 1959. At the end of our talk, he tapped his forehead and said, “It’s intuitive.”

The contrast was explained to me by Sergei Krikalev, who has flown twice on Mir and once on the shuttle, and has been selected as a member of the first crew for the International Space Station. He also happens to be a champion aerobatic pilot, and he has the lean look of an astronaut straight from central casting, so there’s little one can feel in his presence except deep inferiority. When he flew on Discovery, in 1994, he was in charge of maintenance, and a minor air-duct problem occurred. He notified Houston and was told to stand by for instructions. Hours later, Houston gave him a set of instructions, and they worsened the problem. So Krikalev discussed the problem with the commander, Charles Bolden, and they figured out a solution. They told Mission Control about it, and were instructed to stand by. Houston wasn’t being lazy in its response; most probably, technicians were checking blueprints and running simulations. Bolden got tired of waiting and asked Krikalev how the problem would be handled on Mir. It was simple, Krikalev told Bolden. First, he would fix the problem on his own and then tell ground control. If he couldn’t do it quickly, he’d still tell the ground, but he wouldn’t wait around for instructions. Rather, he would keep fiddling. Bolden nodded, and the two men got to work without telling Houston. “In five minutes,” Krikalev told me, smiling, “we fixed the problem and just told the ground controllers that we’d already fixed it.”

At the Johnson Space Center, which sprawls over sixteen hundred acres of what was cattle pasture outside Houston, life is good. There is no sign of scrimping or decay—just an all-is-well tableau of lawns and gift shops and NASA scientists wearing buttons that say “Mars or Bust.” A Disney-style trolley roams around the center with its cargo of tourists, and a few miles away, in neigh-borhoods where the technicians and contractors and astronauts live in split-levels, there are streets with names like Gemini Avenue and Saturn Lane. It all seems pleasant and unruffled, but for the men and women who labor in a program called Phase 1 the calmness is an illusion, which is to say that they labor in the shadow of Mir.

Phase 1, the joint Mir program, began its life as a lesser child at NASA, thrust upon the agency by a White House eager to guarantee its partnership with Rus-sia. Thirty-two years earlier, the Apollo program had begun because America wanted to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon; now the rationale was reversed. Phase 2, a deeper and more ambitious blending of the American and Russian space programs than Phase 1, consists of NASA and the Russian Space Agency leading a global consortium in the building of the International Space Station. In this phase, Russian participa-tion is supposed to save money for NASA, because the Russians are contributing equipment and funding, and the station’s first component, a two-hundred-and-twenty-million-dollar Russian-built module, is scheduled to be launched late next year.

At the outset, Mir was viewed as something of a transition mission until assembly of the International Space Station began. Then the fire occurred and the collision and the computer breakdowns, whereupon, quite suddenly, Mir was no longer an interlude, but the center of attention. All at once, NASA’s reputation was at stake, along with its future. After all, NASA’s thirteen-and-a-half-billion-dollar budget is not untouchable. It is an item that politicians can look at and say, Why bother? If the goal is to send astronauts to Mars, it can be argued—and has been—that NASA and the International Space Station are only impediments. In his book “The Case for Mars” Robert Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin, has proposed giving twenty billion dollars—a “Mars Prize”—to the first group that lands humans on the red planet, much in the spirit of nineteenth-century explorations. And if the goal is to collect data about our solar system, why not focus exclusively on those efficient, relatively cheap robot probes that don’t suffer the inconvenience of heart palpitations? It has not escaped notice that while Mir was lurching about only two hundred and fifty miles above Earth, the Pathfinder was executing a perfect bounce-landing on Mars and sending back pictures and data.

This is not the sort of argument that appeals to Jim Van Laak, the deputy director of Phase 1. Van Laak, an ex-fighter jock, doesn’t dance around criticism of his program so much as stamp on it. He’s not glad that the fire and the collision occurred, but those near-disasters forced the Russians to work more closely with NASA than either side anticipated. The result, Van Laak maintains, is priceless information. “When you leave Earth orbit on your way to Mars, nobody is going to Fed Ex you a spare part that you forgot, so this is an incredibly valuable and critical element of our learning experience,” he said to me. “I assure you that we have learned more in the last six months from flying on Mir than we had learned in the last twenty-five years from thinking about flying our own space station.”

NASA is usually criticized as a slow, unimaginative bureaucracy; the Challenger explosion seemed to squeeze out whatever traces remained of the hang-your-hide-over-the-edge attitude that permeated the agency in its early, pioneering days. Daniel Goldin, NASA’s administrator, is trying to make the agency “faster, better, cheaper,” and is apparently succeeding, though NASA’s involvement with Mir has led to a new bandwidth of criticism from Capitol Hill—that the agency is taking wild risks for the sake of post-Cold War relations with Russia. “What will it take for Russia to decide that Mir has passed its prime or the United States to determine that it’s not safe?” the Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, Jr., the chairman of the House Science Committee, asked as NASA officials were questioned. “Does someone have to get killed?” Roberta Gross, the NASA inspector general, provided cause for concern in an August 29th report to Sensenbrenner. “Ongoing problems on the Mir are occurring at a time when the Russian government may not be in a position to provide adequate financial and technical support to enable the aging space station to operate safely,” her report stated. “Moreover, these problems are exacerbated by the Russians’ failure to timely or fully communicate with NASA. Without knowledge of the problems on Mir or its operating systems, NASA cannot fully prepare our astronauts for their mission.”

When I met with Van Laak, it was early September, and he was tapping a conference table, noting that in a few hours Michael Foale would perform a risky space walk for which he had not been specifically trained. “There is a great deal of hypocrisy in the public world,” Van Laak began. “If there’s an incident, we’re going to get crucified, and, if it’s successful, we’re heroes. I can think of no other word but hypocrisy to describe that.” (The space walk went off without a hitch.) Van Laak was just warming up: “There is risk here, there is absolutely no doubt about it. To be perfectly honest, there are plenty of people within the political system and within NASA who are pushing us to go, go, go, go, go, while at the same time they are distancing themselves from any blame.”

The fear of failure helps explain why NASA demands so many documents and reassurances from the Russian Space Agency. The Russian agency does not need to worry about being zeroed out if something goes wrong, so it doesn’t run as tight a ship as NASA does. In fact, the Russian Space Agency is under pressure to keep Mir in operation through 1999, rather than nudge it out of orbit and let it be consumed by fire as it reënters the atmosphere. This is partly a matter of national pride but also a matter of money. Mir helps keep Russia’s space industry alive: in addition to the cash from NASA, the European Space Agency and individual European nations pay considerable sums to fly their astronauts and experiments on the station. A few years ago, a Japanese television network paid ten million dollars so that one of its reporters could ride on Mir for a few days. In some ways, the Russian attitude is similar to the American attitude in the sixties, when we knew that our new rockets could explode under our astronauts, but instead of slowing down we pushed ahead and hoped for the best. These days, we live in a tamper-proof culture, and Van Laak can only dream of taking risks of the sort taken in the days of Mercury and Gemini and Apollo. “We are in a pioneering business,” he said. “Unless we want to crawl under the bed and forget about spaceflight, we’re going to have to take some risks.”

That is especially so with a mission to Mars, which involves challenges far greater than anything Mir—or Apollo, for that matter—has thrown at its creators. Consider the mission: when a crew heads to Mars, they will be on their own for at least eighteen months (assuming a year of travelling and six months on the surface of Mars). As Van Laak suggests, they won’t have any resupply ships bringing fresh food and magazines; they’ll be so far from Earth that real-time communication will be impossible for much of the mission, and they will not even be able to see the Earth, except as a pale-blue dot. If something goes wrong they won’t be able to climb into an escape capsule and return home in a matter of hours, as Mir’s crew can. Their isolation will be as complete as any group of human beings has faced.

I asked Albert Holland, NASA’s chief of psychology, whether the human-factor problems were surmountable, and his answer was intriguing: “We’re not the first people to do this. We’re the first people to go to Mars, but we’re not the first people to take a trip like this.” He mentioned the earliest sea voyages, in which humans lost sight of land for the first time, and the journey across the Atlantic by Columbus. “The human fac-tors are severe, but it would be presumptuous of us to think that people haven’t done this before,” Holland went on. “We’re not the first explorers, we’re not the first risk-takers, we’re not the first adventurers.”

Mir, in that respect, not only offers a glimpse of the future, it has restarted a debate about the United States’ commitment to space—about the things that America should and should not attempt to do, about the risks that America should and should not take, about the rationale for Mir and Alpha and Mars. As the countdown proceeded to the September 25th launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, people were actually waiting to hear what NASA’s administrator would say—whether another American would be sent aloft to Mir, and, if so, why. It was an unusual opportunity to reach a large audience, and when Goldin finally gave his last-minute go-ahead, he didn’t hesitate to speak his mind. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Americans press forward. We overcome the unexpected. We discover the unknown. That has been our history. That’s America’s destiny.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.