Star Bound №11: Remembering the Dragonfly

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ISS

Published in 1998, Bryan Burrough’s Dragonfly: NASA and The Crisis Aboard Mir tells the story — lots of stories, really — of America’s first extended cooperative venture in space with the Soviet Un — er, Russia. Actually, it was a little of both, as exploratory discussions of such a venture started while the Soviet Union still existed and came to fruition in the wake of the breakup of that entity and the birth of the Russian Federation, with Moscow at its head.

While the Soviets never made it to the moon, they pioneered the construction, deployment, and occupancy of space stations, starting with Salyut in 1971. The second-generation Soviet space station program was called Mir, or “Peace.” It was active from 1986 to 2001 and was notable for its module-based construction, meaning that it was assembled unit by unit, with a “base block,” or core module, science laboratory modules, a docking module — in all, seven pressurized modules and several unpressurised components. In this respect Mir was a model for its successor, the International Space Station, or ISS, which now has something like seventeen pressurized modules and has been operational for over twenty years. Power was provided by several solar arrays attached directly to the modules, four of which were arranged in such a way as to suggest the wings of a dragonfly. The station was widely derided in the nineties for its technological failings. By the time Mir returned to Earth in March of 2001, though, deorbited over the Pacific Ocean, the station had more than tripled its projected five-year lifespan.

In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan announced his support for an American space station that would outpace Mir in much the same way that Skylab one-upped Salyut. The need for a permanent station was much discussed at the time. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, a prolific fantasist and colorless prose stylist who could make even the most exciting ideas seem like an early dinner with your in-laws, laid out the advantages of a permanent station in a July 1986 article in Popular Mechanics. One advantage, he opined, would be that:

[S]pace settlements would offer an ideal inducement for space travel. At their distance from Earth, the escape velocity would be very low. Between that and the omnipresent vacuum of space, fuel requirements would be moderate, and advanced methods of propulsion (ion drive, solar wind sailing) might be made practical.

As Burrough writes in Dragonfly, the new American space station, dubbed Freedom, was envisioned in 1986 as being “an eight-man station working with nineteen scientific instruments, a ‘garage’ for repairing satellites, four separate laboratories, and a hangar for building spaceships to fly to Mars.”

The plans fizzled out. Years of redesigns and budget wrangling followed, with the station’s projected price rising from $8 billion to $120 billion by 1990. Even the station’s supporters were frustrated. “We’ve spent $4 billion so far and there isn’t a nut or bolt to show for it,” said one scientist. By the time Bill Clinton was elected, in 1992, many observers expected the wildly expensive project would be scrapped altogether. Only the frantic efforts of NASA administrator Daniel Goldin to present less costly, more palatable alternatives saved the project. An unexpected overture from the Russian space agency helped to seal the deal. As U.S. relations with Moscow improved, Washington opted to work with the Russians to construct the International Space Station.

Thus began a strange chapter in U.S.-Russian relations. There were many causes of the break-up of the Soviet Union, but one of the chief reasons was economic: The USSR’s socialist economy couldn’t compete with the prosperity of the West, and its failures became increasingly obvious. Westerners watching the Russia that emerged from the wreckage hoped that the new nation would be open, capitalistic, and democratic. These hopes were never fully realized, but both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton saw Russia in those early days as a promising partner for space operations. The theory seemed to be, If they can’t beat you, join ‘em — or something like that. Politicians weren’t the only ones intrigued by the prospect. In 1988, astronauts at Johnson Space Center were asked to propose ways to work with Russia. One shuttle veteran proposed combining work on the fledgling Global Positioning System with the Soviet equivalent, GLONASS, to produce a “joint navigation system,” with the coarse navigation channel and orbit management turned over to some trustworthy third party who would guarantee the system’s functioning in case hostilities involving one or both of the countries broke out. This idea went nowhere, but clearly the possibility of working with the Russians rather than against them was in the air.

It wasn’t simply wishful thinking. There were strong practical and even geopolitical considerations involved as well. Embracing Russia and its space program was seen as a way to acquire Russian technology, especially rocket technology. Partnership with NASA would provide Russians with a positive example of cooperation with the West, and it would keep Russian scientists and technicians employed at home rather than working for regimes like those of China, Iran, and North Korea. Infusions of capital were also seen as important in easing pressures on Russia to sell missiles and guidance systems to such nations. In fact, the money was crucial. The new Russian space agency, now known as Roscosmos, was so strapped for cash that it had its cosmonauts filming candy and soft drink commercials in space. In 1990, the agency accepted a payment of some $12 million to fly Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama into space, where the first space scribe set a new record for orbital vomiting. And finally, given the slow-motion failure of the Freedom Space Station, Reagan’s City on a Hill in the sky, partnership with Russia would give the space shuttle someplace to shuttle to, and pave the way for cooperation on construction of the ISS. Indeed, the Clinton Administration saw cooperation with Russia on Mir as Phase One of a three-part plan that would culminate in joint construction and operation of the gigantic new station.

So it was that the United States agreed to pay Russia $400 million for American astronauts to live and train on Mir. Ultimately seven Americans did in fact spend time on the station, but by the time they started, in 1995, the station was already well past its best-by date. What followed was a largely forgotten detour in American space history, a three-year sleepover with the cosmonauts in the rickety haunted house that was Mir. (There was even a science module named Spektr.) Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev became the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on the space shuttle in 1994, while astronaut Norm Thagard was the first American to visit Mir when he went aboard in March of 1995. Over the next thirty-nine months, American astronauts on Mir endured an on-board fire, an orbital collision and depressurization (the only one so far in the history of spaceflight), power outages, spotty communications, ethylene glycol leaks, and a lack of support by both Russian and American ground control teams. Following orders passed down from on high, Thagard confined himself to consumption of only officially sanctioned Russian foodstuffs, which he disliked so much that he rarely ate at all. He lost fourteen pounds. Russian flight directors were appalled to learn that he wasn’t indulging in any of the salty or sweet snack foods cosmonauts enjoyed “off the books.” They instructed him to indulge. “You’re free to eat anything but your crewmates,” they told him.

Dragonfly is informative and well written; you’ll feel that Progress supply ship hit the station, and you’ll know something of the panic that must have ensued for the crew on Mir when the depressurization alarm sounded. But that’s a relatively brief portion of a very long book. Ultimately, Dragonfly is a dispiriting read. The author is clearly not a space junkie, and this is not the place to go looking for expressions of wonder at the majesty of the cosmos. While Burrough tips his hat to the Corvette-driving space cowboys of the sixties, that spirit, he writes, is long gone in the nineties. “Today, swathed in the smothering layers of NASA’s safety bureaucracy, shuttle flights pack all the suspense of a crosstown bus. They are routine. No one other than science teachers, Star Trek fans, and documentary filmmakers much cares what the astronauts do in space. ‘Looking at stars, pissing in jars,’ is the snide catchphrase for astronaut work you hear at Kennedy Space Center.”

Ouch.

The book spends way too much time discussing hard feelings between the astronauts involved, very few of whom emerge from these pages looking noble (Mike Foale being the one notable exception). Astronaut Jerry Linenger and administrator George Abbey come in for the most criticism, Linenger because people were willing to talk about him and Abbey because people weren’t. At times NASA itself looks like an addled and timid parent, afraid to take responsibility or make hard decisions, blown back and forth by the political winds out of Washington. Burrough can’t quite make up his mind about the Russians. He blames their ground controllers for being bureaucratic and overbearing, but generally gives the cosmonauts a pass, depicting them as overworked, long-suffering, and ultimately quasi-heroic figures doing more with less, as compared with their hypochondriacal, sometimes narcissistic American guests. In fact, if one had read Dragonfly when it was published, he or she might be excused for predicting international cooperation on the ISS would never work.

It did work, of course, and it’s still working today, so take Burrough’s negativity with a shaker or two of salt. But if you’re willing to look beyond a generally unimpressive picture of NASA, plus unnecessarily detailed accounts of inter-personal and intra-agency squabbles, Dragonfly is a fascinating read — particularly in light of current tensions between the U.S. and Russia. The two nations have a long and productive relationship in space. While the Apollo-Soyuz mission was a first date, the Shuttle-Mir project was the courtship — an important period of fraternization and familiarization. Russia benefited at least as much as we did. In fact, as Burrough makes clear, it’s fair to say that for a period during the nineties, American cash kept the Russian space program afloat. In an era when Russia seems to be looking toward China rather than the U.S. as its partner in the cosmos, that ought to count for something.

Dimitry Rogozin, are you listening?

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I'm a Texas writer who’s fascinated by space, science, and the environment. I also kind of like Austin. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com

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Bruce McCandless III

Bruce McCandless III

I'm a Texas writer who’s fascinated by space, science, and the environment. I also kind of like Austin. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com

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