by Jim Ash
For more information
on this article, contact:
Dr. Norm Thagard: 850-487-6432;
Before flames erupted
in the cramped cabin of the Mir space station for a harrowing 15 minutes,
before its computer brains went on the fritz with frustrating regularity,
before a runaway robot supply ship crashed into and punctured its showcase
laboratory module, FSU engineering professor Dr. Norm Thagard called the
Russian science outpost home.
In 1995 he became the
first American to do so, setting a U.S. space flight endurance record and
becoming another icon in the death of the Cold War.
Thagards Mir experience
also made him the first American ever to be launched aboard a Russian spacecraft.
Blasting off March 14, 1995 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan,
he spent 115 days floating 250 miles above Earth in the cross-shaped Mir,
speaking less-than-perfect Russian with his cosmonaut crew mates, Mir commander
Vladimir Dezhurov and flight engineer Gennady Strekalov.
If they were Thagard's
hosts, they were also his guinea pigs. A licensed physician, the 54-year-old
Thagard spent much of his time aboard Mir studying the effects of micro-gravity
on himself and the two hardy Russians.
NASA flight surgeons
still need to crack some vexing problems with long-term exposure to micro-gravity
before they will approve a human flight to Mars. In space, bones mysteriously
grow weaker. Muscles atrophy. Fluids pool in the chest and upper body.
So far, the Russians
are the champions of long-duration space flight, once keeping a cosmonaut
physician in orbit for 14 months. But a trip to Mars could take two years,
a fact which gives research into space-flight endurance a high priority
Thagard was no stranger
to space flight before he went to Mir. Between 1983 and 1992, he logged
four shuttle flights as either a payload specialist or payload commander.
NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate in 1978, a year after he graduated
from the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School. In 1965 and
1966 respectively, he earned an undergraduate and a master's degree, both
in engineering, from FSU. After he graduated from FSU and before he entered
med school, Thagard found time to become a decorated Marine fighter pilot
The Mir mission was
radically different from the relatively short hops Thagard took in the
space shuttle. He soon learned that not all of the effects of space flight
can be measured with biomedical sensors or a stethoscope.
During a dismal two
weeks, when a freezer broke and Thagard had to stop working on his 28 life
science experiments, boredom set in. Not surprisingly, Thagard never warmed
to the Russian staple of jellied fish. Worse, Thagard was forced to log
every calorie he ate to preserve the integrity of his biomedical experiments.
While he trained for a year in the former Soviet Union before his flight,
he had virtually no say in writing the menu.
The wiry, 5-foot, 9-inch
Thagard was a trim 158 pounds when he blasted off for Mir. He was 17 and
a half pounds lighter when Shuttle Atlantis brought him home to Kennedy
Space Center and his native Florida nearly four months later.
Despite the setbacks
on Mir, and a recent NASA report that questions the value of sending more
Americans to the aging station, Thagard is a strong proponent of the Mir-Shuttle
program. With NASA, Russia, Europe and Japan poised to begin construction
of the $48 billion International Space Station (ISS) in 1998, Thagard is
convinced Mir still holds valuable lessons for the future of human space
members of Congress have called continued American participation in the
Mir space station program too risky. You support sending more Americans,
sure. Otherwise, you'd have to say that it was worthless for me to be up
there for the first two-thirds of my mission, or for the Mir station, for
that matter, to have been up there for the nine years it was there before
Spektr ever got there. I don't know why people think that just because
a module that's only been there for two years anyhow is now lost (Spektr),
that has suddenly cast a shadow over the viability of the station. Thats
simply not true. If you accept that, then you accept the fact that the
whole station was useless for nine years.
the problems in Mir come early enough to teach us lessons in the construction
of the International Space Station (ISS)?
I think so. One thing I found out is that we did not (design) the international
station so that the electrical cables have to course through the hatches.
Which means for leak isolation, the international station is in better
shape. They don't have to cut or disconnect electrical cables and remove
air ducts in order to quickly shut a hatch. I think that's a definite improvement.
And I would imagine the international station has more formal storage.
Probably, it's more on the order of the Spektr module. It was the only
module up there that had some amount of the usual kind of storage drawers
and lockers that we would have on the Shuttle.
political concerns still a threat to the ISS? Whats the danger Congress
will pull the plug now?
almost certainly will continue its funding, just because, at this point
you've spent enough money that it's ridiculous to stop. The fact is, a
lot of hardware now is built. Some of it's actually at the cape, being
readied for launch. The Russians have progressed a long way toward building
some of their hardware. At this point, it really doesn't make much sense
to cancel it. Whether you liked it or not in the first place, you ought
to just go ahead and put it up there.
experts have expressed doubts about NASA's ability to proceed with the
construction of the international station, whether or not the shuttle can
accomplish such an ambitious launch schedule, whether the astronauts can
perform the 1,100 hours of complicated space walks the job requires.
Thagard: I think
that folks will do what they have to do to make things work. I don't see
any problems with astronauts doing EVAs (extra vehicular activities.) They
like to do them. There's been a lot of tests done through the years looking
at construction techniques and devices, and all that sort of thing.
the aging shuttle fleet up to the job?
everything goes reasonably well, yes. The shuttle doesn't have to, right
now, do it all by itself. The Russians are involved too. They're providing
quite a bit of the lift capability to the international station.
are the rewards we can realize on the ground from the ISS?
of the things we do there in space we do because that's the only place
we can do them. We've done some nice life sciences experiments that were
looking at answering questions of medicine and physiology here on Earth.
Even though the experiments were conducted in space, the implications were
just as valid here on Earth as they were up there.
For instance, one of
the proteins in the viral code of the AIDS virus was grown in space because
that was the only place you could grow crystals large enough to successfully
characterize its structure using X-ray crystallography. We do things up
there that have applications here on Earth. Everyone shouldn't think that
the only thing we're doing up there is just looking at physiological aspects
that allow humans to be in space, because that's not the case.
you think there is a wall that the human body is going to hit where it
can't tolerate weightlessness any longer?
answer's probably no, but again, that's something we have to prove. The
bone loss, for instance, we think, probably stops at a point below that
at which you begin to be at risk for pathological fractures--this is when
bones break under circumstances in which they normally wouldnt--but that's
What we don't know
is what is the final outcome for some of these things. For instance, we
know that in space there's a bone loss of one to three percent a month
from weight-bearing bones. But we don't know where that ends. We don't
really know how long it takes to get that mineral back. So, this is potentially
a limitation for how long people can stay in space. It's one of those things
you have to worry about when you talk about keeping people up for a year
or more, which means either on a station or a trip to Mars and back.
you treat that, or intervene in bone loss some way?
although, again, that is something that will have to be determined through
time. We have a lot of ideas, but we don't have that much experience. That's
why we put people up there. People say, if the astronauts arent conducting
science, then we shouldn't send them to Mir. But if we did nothing at
all up there, there would still be value in (the project) because we would
have the pre-flight and post-flight data, and right now, we don't have
enough of that.
Russians certainly have the most experience in studying long-duration space
flight on the human body. Are they sharing their data?
been fairly open. The problem with the Russians is that you might get their
results and not all their (scientific) protocols. Like anything in science,
there's an, it wasn't done heresort of attitude. So, we would have a
tendency to repeat all that stuff, even if we thought (the Russian experiments)
were absolutely spiffy. I think theres a question of whether the work
that's been done before has been, let's say, controlled enough. I mean,
we're very stringent in this country about the way we conduct science.
So there would always be a doubt about the stringency.
Spektr Module, which was punctured in June in the worst Mir accident, arrived
while you were aboard. Did you get to spend any time in it?
Thagard: I launched
March 14 from Bikanour, and got to the station on March 16. The Spektr
Module came up on June 1 and we left on July 5 from the station, landing
on July 7. Spektr Module came up, I guess, about two-thirds of the way
through my mission. We opened up the hatch together, so we were the first
ones in the Spektr module. I actually unpacked most of the American equipment
and checked it out. Although, maybe except for one experiment, none of
the stuff in there was actually used for experiments while I was there.
But again, I did the check-out on it. I took all of the computers out and
powered them up, and in some cases, loaded some software in them. There
was an optical disc system that I checked out and did some data transfers
was life aboard Mir like? Describe a typical day.
probably a lot more mundane than most people would think. A typical day
is to get up at 8 o'clock, and the day officially lasts usually to somewhere
around six that evening. During that period of time, my crew mates were
mostly concerned with station operations. But they did some science and
some other technical work, like the deployment of a satellite and that
sort of thing. Most of my tasks were centered around 28 experiments that
were in the Shuttle-Mir Science Program, the majority of which were looking
at the effects on humans being in space that long.
you go back?
I don't think that I would want to give up the year or more that it would
take to train, but if you said, OK, just come out and we'll launch you
tomorrow, I'd do that. And I don't think I would want to fly flights longer
than six months. The Russians would say five months. To me, the cutoff
between long duration and not-long duration is about six months. I really
don't have much interest in flying longer than six months--it can get boring.
that happen on your mission?
did, (although) my mission was only four months. That had to do with weight
loss and the failure of a freezer during a couple of weeks in the middle
of a mission. And as a result, we had to postpone or cancel a couple of
the experiments that I was doing. So I really didn't have enough to do.
One of the main de-briefing
comments that I made when I came back was that it is important that crew
members be reasonably busy with meaningful work. You don't want to overwork
them. I think my two Russian counterparts were overworked and that's bad,
because I thought it tended to make them a little bit irritable and cause
conflicts between them and the mission control center. And you don't want
to be underworked, either, as I was, during that couple of week period.
Because then you get bored, just like you do here. In fact if you're not
reasonably busy it's a lot easier to get bored there simply because there's
less to do.
guys never fought, did you?
of all, we had trained together for a year, so we knew each other pretty
well before we even flew. But secondly, I think we were all three sensitive
to the need to get along. So I think we made an extra effort. As time went
along, it became easier and easier to do, frankly. And at the last, I was
actually comfortable enough, I think we all were, to argue with one another.
I didn't take that as a negative thing. I took that as a positive one.
If we wanted to argue, we could just argue.
did you argue about?
Thagard: I remember
when the shuttle was coming up. Of course, the Mir station looks like somebody's
utility room in general. I guess a number of the Russians are somewhat
sensitive about the appearance of the internal area of the Mir station.
And I had unpacked all this gear in the Spektr module to do a check-out
on it, and that check-out was going to continue when the shuttle got there.
But, Dezhurov came
in and told me to go pack up all that gear in the Spektr module, basically,
so the Spektr module would look neat and clean. And I said, well, that's
ridiculous. I'll put it all back in and the first thing (the other U.S.
astronauts) are going to do when they get here is take it all out again,
because the check-outs are not complete. And we argued about that a little
bit, and he finally said, well, do what you want. So I sat there for
a little while, and I said, what the heck, and went back into the Spektr
module and put it all away. I did it just for the sake of harmony.
is going to be the official language of the ISS. But is language going
to be a big problem in this and in future space projects?
can be. I don't think language was that big a barrier between myself and
my crew mates. Because, again, we trained for a very long time. They are
very well educated Russians, so they speak good Russian, which is easy
for a non-Russian, with a reasonable language background, to understand.
But if you start having a lot of colloquial language spoken, then you're
going to have difficulty with intercommunication. Some of those things
could become big deals when the flights go on for six months or a year
or more and they they've got international crews.
space flight gotten any less dangerous?
of the rockets are less dangerous than some of the ones that were used
earlier in the human space flight program. Riding the rocket is still very
dangerous. However, being on the Mir station is not very dangerous. It
is certainly more dangerous than just sitting here on Earth, but it is
still orders of magnitude less dangerous than simply riding the rocket
that it takes to get you there.
in a sense, we put the cart before the horse. We did the dangerous launches
and landings on the shuttle without ever having a space station to service.
done a lot with the shuttle. We launched satellites, we did a lot of good
science. So, you know, there was a use. But it certainly seemed to me that
the shuttle and the Mir space station were a very good complement. One
thing that made the Mir space station less useful to the Russians was the
inability to bring very much back. They have something like a 50 kilogram
limit, which is about 100 pounds, a little over 100 pounds, bringing stuff
back from space.
its all got to come back in the descent module of the Soyuz, cause that's
the only part of the thing that comes back. And this module is very small--the
entire volume is just three-and-a-half cubic meters, and most of that is
taken up by three cosmonauts. So, you can do a very ambitious science program,
but then you're stuck with the inability, perhaps, to bring a lot of the
stuff back that you did there--a lot of your samples and things.
The shuttle totally
eliminated that problem. For example, we gave the Russians over a thousand
pounds of water on the 71 (shuttle) mission, the mission that came up to
get us off the space station. We make water on the space shuttle, in the
process of producing electricity. So, it would have been difficult for
the Russians to get some of the stuff up there. And we were able to bring
back all of the samples that I had done during the course of a four-month
mission, and we wouldn't have been able to do that if we had come back
on the Soyuz.
astronauts told interviewers that anyone who goes into space falls in love
with the Earth. Did you have a similar experience?
do. The Earth is quite large, but when you can go around it in 90 minutes,
you're very impressed that it is a finite body. I think it makes you more
aware of the fact that it is possible for human beings to alter the nature
of the Earth in maybe negative ways if we're not careful. One of things
that you notice, is, you look down and you see something that looks a lot
like it does on the map, for instance, the whole state of Florida at one
time. But unless they are natural boundaries, you never see the boundaries
between countries. So it really is one world from that point of view.
had so many different careers, I wonder how you think of yourself. Are
you a physician, a scientist, a pilot, an astronaut?
now, I'm a professor of electrical engineering and I also teach a portion
of the physiology course here to the freshmen medical students.
a rocket man stay satisfied in academia riding a desk?
Thagard: I have
no problem with that. I've enjoyed everything I've done. I wouldn't change
anything in my life. But I really haven't looked back at the end of a profession
after going on to something new, and thought, gee, I wish I were still
doing that. I just don't work like that, I guess.
there anything you're taking from your astronaut experience that's helping
you in the classroom?
of what you do in the astronaut program is engineering. And if you looked
at the background of astronauts, we had some folks who were oceanographers,
some geology, biochemistry, astrophysics, but I think the biggest background
is engineering. I bet that more astronauts have an engineering background
that any other. And from day-to-day, I thought it was my engineering background
that was most useful to me.
Thats because you're
always dealing with technical subjects--subjects that span a lot of different
lines. You may be dealing with someone who works on mechanics, or someone
who works on propulsion, chemical engineers, industrial this that and the
other. You're seeing it all. And that engineering background is helpful
in determining what the significance of things are. Obviously, you can't
be an expert on everything that's involved in the space program, but the
engineering background at least allows you to be competent to evaluate
some of it, most of it probably.
do you think about the corporate management style of NASA administrator
far, I guess it's been alright. I don't know that it's been outstanding.
Obviously, it would have been better if he could have prevented some of
the budget cuts.
known for championing lower cost missions, such as the Mars Pathfinder,
which was relatively cheap at $200 million. His theme song is "better,
faster, cheaper." Is that good for the space program?
Thagard: I look
on those things like buzz words. I look on these activities with a great
deal of skepticism. When you've got college educated scientists and engineers,
I don't think they take very well to that.
But I had come to believe
while I was at NASA that we couldn't continue to pay the exorbitant fees
that we were for some projects. It was clear that we couldn't continue
that way. I would rate him (Golden) good in terms of turning around the
costs that were getting out of hand in the late 80s that were appearing
to me to be ridiculous.
you think in your lifetime, we're going to see a human mission to Mars?
Thagard: I certainly
confident are you?
I long ago ceased to be real confident. Actually, I thought when we went
to the moon, we would be on Mars 10 or 15 years after that. So, obviously,
I was wrong.
about space flight in general? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about
the future of space exploration?
optimistic. It's hard to believe that man won't continue to explore.
You have been sort of a space ambassador since you returned to earth.
During the continuous problems with Mir, viewers saw you interviewed on
various news programs. You make appearances at local schools. It must be
hard to keep up with all the requests.
Thagard: I have
had requests for a live interview at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and I turned them
down. I get calls from people who try to get me to give speeches, and it's
usually out of town and its almost always an astronaut speech and it's
almost always pro bono. I have to turn a lot of them down. If I didn't,
I would literally have no home life.
do you decide which ones to accept?
Thagard: I charge
a fee and that keeps the requests down. I deliberately set the speaking
fees to limit the number of engagements to one or two per month.
How much do you charge?
non-profits, I charge $3,000 and for corporations I charge $5,000. I should
add that I do give talks to local schools and I don't charge for that.
One of them offered to give me money one time but I turned it down and
the money was used for a scholarship instead. But I don't mind admitting
that I do like the extra income.
At the same time, you're also spreading the word about FSU, right?
that extent, it does help the university. It benefits FSU and I think they
Does the celebrity interfere with your work?
and I would never let it.