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Astronaut Captain Jerry Linenger

Retired U.S. Navy flight surgeon and NASA astronaut Captain Jerry Linenger talks about the awe and peril of space travel. He spent five months on the Russian Space station Mir and wrote about the account in his book, Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir." He described the Mir as "six school buses all hooked together." During his time there, he says, he and fellow crew members had numerous brushes with death, lacked adequate supplies and battled constant system failures. Linenger's new book is Letters from Mir: An Astronaut's Letters to His Son.


Other segments from the episode on February 4, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 4, 2003: Interview with Jerry Linenger; Commentary on blues singer Wynonie Harris.


DATE February 4, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jerry Linenger discusses his new book "Letters from
Mir," his five months on board the space station and the Columbia

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the wake of the Columbia catastrophe, we knew we wanted to talk with former
astronaut Jerry Linenger because he's very articulate and reflective about
life in space, the challenges and the risks. In 1997, Linenger left behind
his pregnant wife and 14-month-old son to spend five months aboard the Russian
Space Station Mir. During this joint US-Russian mission, he traveled the
equivalent distance of 110 round-trips to the moon. The space station was in
a state of deterioration, communication with Russian ground control was
terrible and something was always going wrong. Linenger survived a couple of
near catastrophes on board, including a fire that raged out of control for 14

Throughout the mission, he wrote letters to his young son. He recently
collected those letters in a book called "Letters from Mir." His previous
book is the memoir "Off the Planet." I recorded this interview with Jerry
Linenger yesterday afternoon.

Jerry Linenger, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

I want to start by quoting something that you say in your book "Letters from
Mir." You say, "Launching rockets entails big risks. One cannot argue with
that. To most observers, the people inside are brave souls. But when
climbing into a rocket, I cannot say that I ever felt particularly courageous
or brave. I just did it, primarily, because that is what I was prepared to do
and that was what I had been trained to do."

Did you ever let your imagination wander to what it would be like if something
went terribly wrong and you did die in space?

Captain JERRY LINENGER (Former Astronaut): I think every astronaut does face
up to that fact. I don't know of anyone that dwells on that fact, but, yes,
we all recognize the risk. Yes, we know, you know, the ultimate sacrifice
might be made. But I think we all believe so much in the purpose of what
we're doing out there exploring, the honor to represent our countries, to
represent our world, that you say the personal sacrifice is worth it. So
never anything you had to dwell on, just something that, yes, you knew about
and you face it, you deal with it, you try to prepare your family for it. You
let your family know that you want to be doing this.

GROSS: Are astronauts taught to deal with these kinds of thoughts? Are they
addressed? Are these, like, psychological, emotional issues addressed in your

Capt. LINENGER: I think they are specifically with a lot of the psychological
testing we do, but probably it's the selection process that picks people that
have been in tough, difficult situations, have reacted well to those
situations. And so it is a very pre-screened group, if you will, based on
life experience; deep sea divers, parachutists, people that have flown off
aircraft carriers. We've all dealt with almost suppressing the emotion during
the operation and that's what I talked about at launch, actually. Emotion's
there, but during it you're concentrating on the task. You don't feel
particularly brave. You're just doing your job, and your mind doesn't have
time to bring the fear up.

GROSS: Now what about your family? What about the families of astronauts?
They're not doing the task and their minds are free to wander. And, you know,
they love their family very much and, I'm sure, are worried about the
astronaut that's about to launch off? Are they given any kind of
psychological preparation for that? And, like, did you talk to your wife a
lot about the dangers before you took off for the space station?

Capt. LINENGER: I think practically, NASA's done well since Challenger to
make sure the family has all the support that they need. They send another
astronaut along with the family if the family requests that or if the family
doesn't say they don't want that. You know, it is a big family--you hear it,
but, believe me, the astronaut corps is a big family. We're together
socially. You know each other, you know each other's families and you
actually have a representative that you choose, one of the astronauts, that
should you die, that person is the person that you want to be with your
family. And so, I think these things are sort of discussed. They're not
dwelt upon and, you know, you just--it's the recognition of it.

I just talked to my wife a couple days ago about, you know, did she ever have
real fears when I went up. And it was interesting. She said the launch was
the thing. And, in retrospect, it's probably because of Challenger. Now that
we've had this Columbia tragedy, I think people'll be on pins and needles on
both ends.

GROSS: Right. Did you say a particularly ceremonial goodbye before taking
off in the space shuttle for the space station, or did you try to keep that
kind of emotionally cool so it doesn't get too upsetting?

Capt. LINENGER: A tough time for me. I can remember distinctly, a rainy day
in Houston. You're leaving crew quarters. You're in isolation from then on
and, you know, kissing my wife goodbye and putting my little son in his car
seat, the car driving away and John reaching out for Daddy and, you know, a
tough moment. So I think, yes, you know, the raw emotions are there. It took
me five or 10 minutes to recover and get back in and, you know, join the other
astronauts. So we all have those private moments. You try to leave things
said and not unsaid before you go on an adventure like that, and a risky

GROSS: There are three astronauts, two Americans and one Russian, that are
aboard this space station now. And they were supposed to end their tour of
duty in March, return to Earth and come back to Earth on a space shuttle. But
now it seems improbable that there will be a space shuttle launched that
quickly to take them back to Earth, so my understanding is that they've been
told they're going to have to wait. And I'm wondering--you know, you
spent--Was it four months? You spent five months...

Capt. LINENGER: About four and a half.

GROSS: Yeah.

Capt. LINENGER: Yeah, close to five. It's a long time.

GROSS: Yeah, on the Space Station Mir.

Capt. LINENGER: Yeah.

GROSS: What do you think your reaction would have been--this is just
speculation, but you know, if you had been there, more or less ready to come
home, and hearing about a disaster on the space shuttle...

Capt. LINENGER: I think I know exactly...

GROSS: ...and then waiting, knowing you had to wait more?

Capt. LINENGER: It's not even really--it's sort of speculation, but I'll tell
you. In my mind, it would have been very, very difficult and I knew that. On
Mir, we had a lot of problems, obviously. We were working day and night
trying to keep the space station alive, and I'll tell you, I wanted to get the
work done. I did not want to come back, look at principal investigators,
scientists from around the world, and tell them I failed and I did not carry
out my mission. So I worked very hard for four months. And to be honest, I
sort of paced myself. And at night, I would have my self-doubts and I would
say, `Jerry, you can make it for another month. You can keep this pace up for
another 10 days. You can keep going for another two minutes.' And if the
shuttle had not shown up when it did, I know, at least in my case, that I was
spent and it would have been very hard to rise to the occasion and perform in
the manner that I wanted to perform.

The people up there now--Ken Bowersox I went to the Naval Academy with. I've
known him for over 20 years; a quality person. Don Pettit's up there, Nikolai
Budarin. You know, again, I think you understand that things can be delayed
and you sort of try to prepare yourself for that. But again, after my five
months in space, there was no finer day in the world than when that space
shuttle was in the rear-view mirror coming to pick me up. So it's not easy,
psychologically, to deal with the delay after a long time in space.

GROSS: What provisions are being made to enable them to stay in space longer
than they planned?

Capt. LINENGER: The Russians have just launched a resupply rocket going up
there, and I'm sure they may have modified a few things there to make sure
they have all the supplies that they need. My understanding is it's probably
till the end of June they're going to be OK.

The other thing you have, and it's the same thing we had on the Russian Space
Station Mir, you have a Soyuz capsule parked there at all times for emergency
evacuations. And so you still have that means of getting up there via the
Russian Soyuz rocket and you still have a means to return. The Mir, at the
time I was on board, they thought if we did abandon it, it was probably
unrecoverable. The International Space Station probably is recoverable. You
can control from the ground, try to keep the systems running. And it's too
early to speculate on that, but these people are not trapped up there by any

GROSS: And I imagine it makes perfect sense to you to wait and do more
investigation before launching another shuttle.

Capt. LINENGER: Absolutely. And, you know, sort of the good news is that all
the data is pointing in sort of one direction and everything sort of makes
sense without examining the wreckage yet, and that's a good thing. The sooner
you can determine exactly what went wrong, the sooner you can start making
corrections. So, you know, the good news is that all indicators are pointing
in the same direction and you can make logical sense of what happened.

GROSS: My guest is retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Captain Jerry Linenger. He's
an astronaut who spent about five months aboard the Soviet space station, the
Mir. He's traveled on the space shuttle. His latest book is called "Letters
from Mir: An Astronaut's Letters to His Son."

During the nearly five months you were aboard the space station, you wrote
letters to your 14-month-old son. You knew that your son was too young to
read them at the time, but I guess you wanted them there as a document of how
you were feeling, of what you were experiencing and as a legacy if that was
necessary, as well. You were writing these letters from the isolation of
space. Can you describe how the isolation of space compares with, you know,
feeling isolated on Earth?

Capt. LINENGER: It's exponentially greater. I had been, as I say, a naval
officer, in the middle of the ocean on a lot of ships. I actually did some
research of living in isolation in Antarctica. I prepared myself to the best
of my ability for that five-month mission. But I'll tell you, the isolation
was just profound. You are cut off; in that case not the nice communication
systems that the shuttle or the new space station have, but the Russian space
station, poor communications. And it's yourself and, in my case, two other
Russians who only speak in Russian. When we do talk to the Earth every 90
minutes for a garbled two or three minutes, you're only talking in Russian.

And it reminds me of Pascal's Pensees, where he talks about going in a room,
closing the door and are you comfortable with who you are. And you have to
face yourself every day; a lot of reflection on what you're made out of. And
there is self-doubt and, you know, pretty confident people--I think I'm a
confident person, I think all astronauts are. But I'll tell you, a lot of
self-doubt in the evenings when you sit back and say, `Am I going to perform?
I'm out here by myself, is what it feels like, and I've got to hold up.'

GROSS: What about your communications with NASA? What kind of communications
did you have with them from the space station?

Capt. LINENGER: I had essentially zero. It was a Russian space station. We
were learning how the Russians operated. It was in the infancy of that
cooperative spirit at that time, and so my only conversations were to the
people in Mission Control-Moscow and, again, only in Russian. There was a
small contigency--two or three Americans there--that could sometimes listen in
and sometimes I'd have enough communication time to talk in English to them.
But it was probably down to once a week and very poor communications, so you
are just cut off. And I'll tell you, when I came back, I would just sort of
gawk at people and say, `Wow, look at all these earthlings, how beautiful they
are. The diversity of human beings, what a great give we have here on the
planet.' You know, if you sat next to me on an airplane, Terry, I'd be the
guy jabbing you in the ribs saying, `Wake up. You know, talk to me. Tell me
about Philadelphia. Tell me about your show.' I wouldn't let you sleep. I
would just be overjoyed to be sitting next to another human being.

GROSS: The astronauts who are still on the space station and are stuck there
because we can't launch another shuttle in the near future to bring them down,
they're going to be getting more supplies from an unmanned space vehicle. I
think it's the Progress, is that right?

Capt. LINENGER: That's correct, the Russian Progress capsule.

GROSS: And that's the same unmanned vehicle that delivered supplies to you
when you were on the space station and also would take your garbage away. You
call it the garbage truck in your letters to your son.

Capt. LINENGER: Yeah, it is. 'Cause it burns up coming in the atmosphere,
and so you just put all the discards in there once you've gotten the good
stuff off of it and then it burns up with all your waste material, for one
thing, and all the excess stuff you have on board.

GROSS: Now that isn't a simple procedure either, hooking up with this
unmanned vehicle. This vehicle nearly rammed the space station one of the
times when you were hooking up, which would have been the end for you and the
space station. What's that process like?

Capt. LINENGER: I'm not sure if it would have been the end because actually,
it did ram the space station about two weeks after I left and my two Russian
crewmates were still aboard along with my replacement, Mike Foale. And you
remember that drama, rapid decompression and they, by the skin of their teeth,
were able to isolate that module by closing some hatches and keep the space
station alive. You know, nothing is trivial in space, nothing.

GROSS: What are some of the things you had to get precisely right in order to
dock with the Progress?

Capt. LINENGER: Everything has to be aligned exactly correctly and you've got
to come in at just the right speed. You're too soft then the two vehicles
sort of just repel each other. Without making it too complicated, you're
inside this spacecraft trying to fly an incoming spacecraft to dock with the
space station, and you do that by looking at a monitor which reflects a camera
inside the Progress. So you're essentially inside the space station trying to
fly in a remote-controlled spacecraft. And those views were not so crisp. It
gets to the point where you don't even know where that spacecraft is coming in
and you're running from window to window trying to bark out orders and
directions to the silly who's got the thruster firings in the grip of his
hands--which direction to fire thrusters to get this thing to come in or, in
our case, to miss us. You know, a tough time; a tough time.

Very difficult in space judging distances and good luck saying, you know, `You
need to turn right, you know. What does that mean, turn right? If I'm upside
down, that might be left.

GROSS: Right.

Capt. LINENGER: I mean, it is very difficult without other objects. You
ought to try that one. It's a good mind game. Give yourself no other points
of reference, just a spacecraft out there, you know, up, down, left, right.
Different world; it is a different world. You have to think differently

And imagine this. You know, both vehicles are going 18,000 miles an hour.
You're weighing 100 tons. The Space Station Mir was weighing 120 tons. You
know, my God, how do we do it? That's, I guess, the take home that I have of
everything in our space program is, you know: `My God, how do we do it?' It
is incredible what we do. And we build upon our experience in the past and,
yes, we build upon, you know, the Apollo I fire and the Challenger disaster
and, hopefully, we build upon what happened with Columbia.

GROSS: The biggest emergency that you faced, the most life-threatening one,
was a fire that broke out on the space station that you had to put out. We
talked about this fire during your last visit to FRESH AIR, but I just want to
talk about it a little bit again. Can you explain, like, how big the fire was
and what you needed to do to put it out in space?

Capt. LINENGER: Yeah. This fire was in an oxygen-generating system. It was
actually the backup system to the failed primary system. It sort of looks
like a small garbage can; metallic, filled with a slurry of oxygen-rich
chemical. It percolates a little oxygen into the air, which, of course,
replenishes the oxygen that you need up there as your metabolism burns it

So we had started one of those devices up. Instead of percolating a little
oxygen, the device, which should have absolutely no flame--it's sort of an
exothermic reaction to release oxygen--instead turns into a big fire and it's
a blowtorch. It's a three- or four-foot length flame coming out about a foot
and a half in diameter, blowtorchlike in intensity, sparks flying off the end
of it. It looks like someone lit a box of 100 sparklers. Molten metal flying
across and literally coating the far bulkhead with pancake-sized splatters.
So we've got a red-hot, metal-melting fire, smoke billowing out, within 30
seconds can't see the five fingers in front of your face. Master alarms
blaring all over the place, smoke warning lights, fire warning lights, low
voltage lights; everything going wrong very quickly. Nowhere to go; can't
call the fire department.

Actually in that case, we didn't have enough capability to get both crews off,
so you're sort of faced with three people leave and the other three stay
behind. At that time, it was an overlap of the crews and you couldn't get to
the one Soyuz vehicle because the fire was in the way. So, you know, you're
committed to it. I guess that's, you know, the same thing with the bravery.
Are you brave in that situation? Not especially. You're just trying to
survive. You're there, you have limited options; you're committed is what you
are. And at that point I yelled out, `We're going to get this fire out, I'm
going to see my family again, I'm going to get back to Earth.'

And, you know, we snapped to, grabbed fire extinguishers, put on respirators.
It was the only thing to keep us alive. Actually, my first respirator failed
and you really need oxygen when you're in the middle of the soup of the smoke;
yanked that off, started feeling for the second one. Starting to get tunnel
vision, feeling like I had swum 50 meters underwater, needing air badly. A
lot of thoughts, by the way, went through my head during that minute or so
that I'm grasping and feeling my way along the bulkhead, and I can distinctly
remember saying goodbye to my wife, saying goodbye to my boy, telling them I
loved them.

GROSS: Was one of the thoughts that was going through your head, `I'm sorry I
became an astronaut'?

Capt. LINENGER: No. I just said, `I'm sorry that I have to leave the world
so soon.'

GROSS: But you weren't sorry that you'd become an astronaut?

Capt. LINENGER: No regrets. I was doing what I wanted to do.

GROSS: Have you been thinking about that fire a lot in the last few days
since the Columbia disaster?

Capt. LINENGER: I guess--you know, I'm really thinking about the families.

GROSS: Yeah.

Capt. LINENGER: You know, I just imagine that--you know, I imagine it, they
had it come to fruition. And, you know, all I can say is those are some great
people. I feel for the families. You know, it's a great loss to us all.

GROSS: Have you been in touch with the families at all? Do you know them?

Capt. LINENGER: I know them. You know, they weren't the people I trained
with from the get-go, but the people that were there when I was there and it's
a small group of astronauts. So, yeah, you know, I know them. I worked with
them. A lot of small kids. I think there's 13 kids involved and one slightly
older son. You know, a big loss, but I think they all know, you know, what
their dad, their mom was doing, what it's all about, what personal sacrifice
means. And I know--I think they have a lot of pride that their parents were,
you know, willing to do that.

GROSS: Retired astronaut Jerry Linenger will be back in the second half of
the show. His new book, "Letters from Mir," collects the letters he wrote to
his son while on board the Space Station Mir.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with retired astronaut
Jerry Linenger. In 1997, he spent five months on board the Russian Space
Station Mir in a joint US-Russian mission.

I think a lot of Americans, until the Columbia, had more or less lost track of
the space program. Let's talk a little bit about what your mission was. I
mean, the space shuttle and the space mission run a lot of experiments. It's
not just the adventure of being up there, but there are a lot of tests that
the astronauts are helping to conduct. What kind of tests were you running?

Capt. LINENGER: You know, it is excitement in a different sense. It's the
excitement of science and, you know, trying to push knowledge forward. The
big ones were probably the laser beaming at the Earth, the dark side of the
Earth. Just as an example, you don't see the weather. You don't see the
cloud cover. And when we try to make weather predictions on the planet, we do
it using half the knowledge that's out there. Only the lighted side the
satellite photos show you the cloud movements. We tried beaming a laser on
the dark side and map the clouds on the dark side of the Earth. Scientists
get the whole picture, put those data points together, see if they can really
understand the Earth as a planet and the whole weather system, for example.
More mundane things; you know, I did fire experiments inside a chamber and see
how flame propagates, basic properties of fire. For example, it's a sphere
in space. It's not flame shaped because there's no oxygen coming in from the
bottom because warm air is not rising. It just uses the oxygen in the
boundary layer.

I did a lot of medical experiments, a lot of self-examination on myself. And
then I did some things that--you say, `What are your goals up there?' One of
my goals was to be a world-class geographer. I wanted to know the Earth like
no one else ever knew the Earth. And I was doing a lot of experiments, Earth
observation, to help geologists; for example, looking at fault lines,
photographing those, oceanographers looking at plankton blooms, lots of those
sorts of things. And when you're looking out the window, I told myself, `I'm
going to learn this Earth.' And that one has stuck with me. I see a map on
the wall and, although I don't have a photographic memory, I do for that. I
see a map and I get a nice, clear flashback to what it looked like from space,
and I hope that stays with me the rest of my life; you know, what an
incredible planet down below.

GROSS: And what were your personal observations about the best and the worst
effects of weightlessness on the body?

Capt. LINENGER: It's incredible. First of all, I got to say, the human body
is incredible. The adaptability, you know, boggles the mind. After one
month, Terry, I'm telling you, I am up there on the ceiling, you know, sucking
down some dehydrated borscht.

GROSS: Yuck.

Capt. LINENGER: You know, flying around, and I start laughing and say,
`Jerry, you don't even know you're in space anymore.' As comfortable upside
down as I am sitting here, as comfortable flying as I am walking. You know,
what an organism that can adapt to something like that, where everything
floats and within a month, you're there. It's like you're a spaceman.

GROSS: And in that sense, you're exposed to a completely different physical
sense of reality in space, and I'm wondering, you know, if experiencing such a
different geographical reality and physical reality changed your inner self,
your inner beliefs, even, like, your sense of faith or lack of faith.

Capt. LINENGER: I am changed forever. My life's in three phases now and I
think it'll forever be that way. It was 40-some years on the planet, five
months off the planet, profoundly different world, different perspective of
the world, the grand view and that introspection I talked about. And now I'm
in that third phase of my life, and I am definitely a different person because
of that middle phase. So profound changes.

GROSS: Well, what about your sense of faith? How'd that changed, too, when
you came back?

Capt. LINENGER: Sense of faith--one example. My father is deceased, but I'd
be running on the treadmill--my dad told me, `You could be anything you
wanted to be in life. You're in America, you work hard, you study hard, you
can be an astronaut someday.' I'd be running on the treadmill sometimes and
out of the corner of my eye, I could sense my dad's presence there up in the
heavens. He's there with Uncle Bill and they're laughing and joking like
they'd always did. And he'd say, `Jerry, I'm proud of you. Glad you made
it,' then sort of fade away.

GROSS: So this was in the space station you'd have this feeling?

Capt. LINENGER: Yeah, running on the treadmill. And, again, I'd sort of have
my eyes closed, but I--you know, a very strong sense of my dad being there
with me. You look out at the Earth, the universe and, you know, it's
just--there was a creator in my mind and so it reaffirmed my faith.

GROSS: Now you've said, and I've heard other astronauts say, too, that when
you look down on Earth from space and you see this kind of beautiful planet
and you're far from it, that conflicts, wars, become even more upsetting and
even more unimaginable. Yet at the same time, I think there were plenty of
conflicts between the people who were in the space station and plenty of
conflicts between the people in the space station and the people in Russian
control. Yes?

Capt. LINENGER: Yes. Within the space station, no. I think we were under
common danger. It was sort of us against them and you're right. That's
a--you know, I hadn't thought of that, but, yeah, the people in Mission
Control-Moscow we started viewing as taking with a grain of salt when they
tell us something because they're not up here. They seem--it got to the point
where it seemed they wanted us up there at all costs. And we started
questioning what they told us and didn't just take order after order after

The other part of that was they don't realize--or they should have after all
their long-duration experience--but didn't seem to realize that you're a human
being, you're not a robot. And you cannot tell the person at 9:02 you're
going to go to the bathroom, at 9:04 you're going to run this experiment, at
9:06 you're going to do this. So we sort of--and I was probably the leading
edge, I'll add, the rebel, if you will--strongly suggested to them that they
send us a daily schedule with what needs to be accomplished, and we are
professionals and we will accomplish that. So you're right, there's conflict
even, you know, Earth to spacecraft.

You know, people ask what am I doing now and all that, but I'll tell you, the
one thing I would sure like to figure out is how we can figure out how to
resolve some conflicts. And, you know, I'm a naval officer. I understand our
need in the military and the great service they do for our country and I
believe in them, believe me. But I think everybody in the military, when you
step back and look at it, they say, `Man, I wish we could figure out a way to
solve these things without us having to do our job.'

GROSS: Are these experiences that you're talking about affecting how you see
the possibility of war with Iraq?

Capt. LINENGER: Probably not. During that time I was up there, it was the
Bosnia thing happening. And my grandmother, who's 97 years old, came over on
a boat from Slovenia, which is just in that Yugoslavia breakup area there, a
small country, a little Austria. And so I was interested in taking some
pictures of my homeland and be able to show my grandmother. I got to admit
that was my own personal--you know, a few photos here and there for myself.
And it was sad. You know, you go over there, the Adriatic Sea is beautiful.
The mountains there and, you know, Italy looking like a boot, I mean--and you
look and you say, `You know, what are they fighting over this little speck of
land for and all that pain and all that suffering?'

My views on Iraq--you know, it's probably irrelevant, but I heard a quote that
said, "War is always terrible, but other things are even more terrible." And
there can be things more evil than war and, unfortunately, the only way that
we humans have figured out the deal with that is to fight it out and set
things right. So it's disturbing to me. I think it's disturbing to every
astronaut, but we live in the real world down here and, you know, we ought to
spend a lot of brain power--probably the effort that we put into our space
station, we ought to spend that brain power and that effort toward figuring
out a way to solve these conflicts.

GROSS: My guest is retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Captain Jerry Linenger is my guest. He's an astronaut who spent about
five months aboard the Russian Space Station Mir. And his latest book is
called "Letters from Mir." It's letters he wrote to his 14-month-old son
while he was in the space station.

Well, there's several investigations being launched now into the Columbia
disaster. There are a lot of criticisms about the level of funding that NASA
is getting. Some people are saying, you know, we should limit the amount of
funding to the space program. Others are saying the problem is NASA hasn't
gotten enough funding, so they're cutting corners and that's affecting safety.
Some people are saying that criticism within NASA is discouraged or even
squelched. Where are you weighing in on this? Do you have criticisms of NASA
or the funding of NASA?

Capt. LINENGER: The latter part I don't agree with, at least when I was at
NASA. Again, I think everyone had that common goal of getting out there,
exploring space and doing it safely. So that concern I did not have.

GROSS: What, of criticism being squelched?

Capt. LINENGER: Yes. Sometimes, you know, people have different
perspectives, and I think within NASA, like anywhere, yeah, you're working on
your system. You want that system improved in some way. But someone else is
looking at the bigger picture, and there are limitations and there's budget
limitations and that's always going to be with us in everything we do. And,
you know, to some extent, yes, if you've got a great budget, we can go to
Mars. But there is realities, there's constraints and I don't think NASA was
squeezed so hard that they couldn't do things right.

GROSS: You've been in tight spots yourself in space. Could you speculate at
all what it might have been like for the astronauts as they were returning to
Earth when the space shuttle came apart?

Capt. LINENGER: Yeah, I'd be glad to do that. The regular re-entry at that
point--I can remember re-entering once and we yelled out, `Tally-ho, West
Coast,' meaning we spotted the West Coast of the United States. And that's
right about where the shuttle started having problems. In our case, that was
a glorious moment, and so they were probably feeling elated, you know. `Can't
wait to see our families. We see the United States again. We're coming back

You're going very fast down to about Mach 18, 18 times the speed of sound.
You're now low enough that you're starting to sort of feel the speed. You're
down there in the atmosphere, a big fireball. Turbulence, bouncing around,
sounds like a locomotive gonna run you down. It's a very, very dynamic phase
of flight. You sort of strap back in your seat. You're sitting back. You're
concentrating on the tasks. You're looking at the computer displays. You're
looking at making sure everything's looking good. I heard the last call down.
It looks like they got a tire pressure warning. You could hear Rick Husband
just being very methodical, calling that warning down to the ground. The
ground acknowledging that, yes, they are reading the same thing. So they're
concentrating on their tasks. It's right in the middle of a very dynamic
phase of flight.

And the shuttle had just done what's called a roll reversal, so you're sort of
pivoting, moving from sort of one wing tip to the other. That had just been
completed. That had gone well. Based on everything, the temperature sensors
going up sort of in a gradual way and then looking like the wires probably
burned through and got cut off, I would think things happened very, very
quickly after that. And once one bad thing happened, it was probably a
cascade at that point, and I doubt there was much time for them to reflect on
much of anything. Probably just trying to do their job, just concentrating on
the tasks and sort of fortunately it was very fast, very catastrophic. So
that's probably what was happening. But I know what was going through my
head. My head was, `I'm heading home, gonna see my family.'

GROSS: You know, from the way you describe re-entry, where you're basically
in a fireball and you're going 18 times the speed of sound and it's probably a
pretty rocky ride, it feels like a good re-entry would feel kind of

Capt. LINENGER: Absolutely. You know, there were quite a few rookies on
board and people with their second flight. And I can recall, for example, I
guess it was my first flight. Dick Richards, the commander, was on his fourth
shuttle flight. He turned around midway through re-entry with his eyes just
big, bugging out, looking at me, and yelled out something I won't repeat, but,
you know, `Holy cow, do you believe this?' And then his neck snapped back,
looked back forward again.

And what happens at that phase is you're getting low enough that you're
starting to feel the speed. It's sort of like an airplane, you know, climbing
out on the wing all of a sudden vs. being inside it. Rationally, you know
you've got the speed. You had Mach 25, now you're down to Mach 18. But now
you're getting low enough that you're starting to see the clouds. You're
starting to see objects going by much more quickly down below you. You're
inside that dynamic, fluid sort of feeling of the plasma and the fire and the
bright orange and the noise and the vibration, and it's sort of thrilling.
And you trust your systems and so you're relaxed, you're not in any way
panicking. But I would agree, it's very hard to distinguish what's right and
what's wrong in that sort of environment.

GROSS: I'd like to close by asking you to read a letter that you wrote to
your son in February of 1997, when you were aboard the Space Station Mir. And
this letter is reprinted in your collection of letters to your son called
"Letters from Mir." Before you read this excerpt, tell us what was happening
when you wrote this.

Capt. LINENGER: At that time, we were about to jump in the Soyuz capsule.
That's the unmanned--I'm sorry--the manned capsule, three-seat capsule, which
is the same one, by the way, that should we have to abandon the International
Space Station, that crew would be able to return to Earth in. In my case, all
we did was move it from one docking node, flew around the space station and
came back to a different docking node. So for us, it was an exciting time.
We were able to jump in that spacecraft, take off and come back home again.
And I got to have the great experience of sort of being an old Gemini, Apollo
astronaut and flying a capsule for the first time.

GROSS: Can you read that excerpt for us of the letter?

Capt. LINENGER: (Reading) `Everything will be fine, but space is the
frontier, an unforgiving place, and things could go awry. For example, should
we undock successfully and then be unable to redock, the only option would be
to head home. There's a limited supply of oxygen and fuel on board a Soyuz
capsule, so we cannot live in the capsule for long. If we are unable to
redock and then are forced to fly home to the planet, after a fiery re-entry,
the capsule would come down under parachute and then plop down rather
unceremoniously and with a final firm bump in the middle of the desert in
Kazakhstan. I'd be without my passport. That might be the worst part of it.

`You know, you can sit here and imagine a lot of less-than-desirable
scenarios, but if the control thruster on our capsule fails to shut off, we
can get ourselves into an uncontrollable spin. Or if the docking mechanism
malfunctions and does not hold us tight enough together to get a good seal, we
would be unable to open the doors. Anyone that's tried to fix a leaky faucet
knows how difficult it is to get a watertight seal, one that is not too tight
and not too loose. Well, airtight is even tougher to achieve. A leak would
mean that we would lose all of our breathing air to the vacuum of space should
we open the hatch under such conditions.

`Anyway, everything will be fine. Although we think about those bad
possibilities in order to prepare to react appropriately should they occur,
the odds are that everything will go smoothly, and it'll be another grand
adventure for your daddy, John. I hope that your adventures around the hall,
through the kitchen and into the living room, opening every drawer in sight,
unhooking every reachable telephone and banging every pot and pan are as
enjoyable. Good night, my little adventurer. Give Mommy one of those little
kisses of yours for me. Thanks. Love you. I'll be watching over you. Dad.'

GROSS: Jerry Linenger, you made it back to your family. You made it back to
your 14-month-old son and your pregnant wife. Did your children have a lot of
questions for you when they heard about Columbia and heard about the families
whose fathers or mothers didn't make it home?

Capt. LINENGER: As I said, Terry, John is in first grade, and we just sort of
said that there was an accident and sent him off to make a snow fort. So, you
know, they don't need to deal with that. They'll learn about it when they get
a little older.

GROSS: Jerry Linenger, thank you so much for talking with us.

Capt. LINENGER: My pleasure, as always, Terry. And again, a tribute to all
the people, hearts go out to the families. These are some great people, and I
am so proud of the people of the Earth that realize that and are mourning our

GROSS: Retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. His new book, "Letters from Mir,"
collects the letters he wrote to his son during his five months aboard the
Russian Space Station Mir.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward profiles blues singer Wynonie Harris. This

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Blues singer Wynonie Harris

When you hear Wynonie Harris' voice, you'd never imagine that he was tall and
rail thin. He sounds like the other great blues singers in this style, Roy
Brown, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Witherspoon, all of whom were huge. But Wynonie
Harris easily outsold them all in the years between 1945 and '52, and left
behind some spectacular recordings. Rock historian Ed Ward has his story.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WYNONIE HARRIS: (Singing) Night train that took my baby so far away.
Night train that took my baby so far away. Tell her I love her more and more
every day. My mother said I'd lose her if I ever did abuse her, should have
listened. My mother said I'd lose her if I...

Mr. ED WARD (Rock Historian): Wynonie Harris was born in 1915 in Omaha,
Nebraska, to an unwed 15-year-old mother. His father was alleged to be an
American Indian named Blue Jay, but he was raised by a stepfather after his
mother married. By the time he dropped out of the ninth grade, Omaha was the
center for black music, mostly thanks to the Nat Towles Band, the top flight
organization that spawned many great musicians. Wynonie responded to the
local scene by forming a dance act with Velda Shannon(ph), and the two of them
became featured attractions at nightclubs and theater shows. Playing around,
Wynonie got to catch some of the top touring acts, people like Jimmy Rushing
and Big Joe Turner who became his hero.

In 1940, Wynonie, with his wife and daughter, moved to LA where he quickly
became part of the thriving Central Avenue scene. Finally, in early 1944, one
of America's top black bands, the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, offered him a
job, and the next thing he knew he was in front of a recording microphone.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) It was an early Sunday morning and the church was
crowded full. Old Elder Brown(ph) was ravin'; he was angry as a bull. The
congregation sensed it and they knew just what he meant when he said, `My text
today is you sinners must repent.'

Who threw the whiskey in the well?

Singers: In the well.

Mr. HARRIS: Who threw the whiskey in the well?

Singers: In the well.

Mr. HARRIS: 'Cause Deacon Jones knelt down to pray, all he said was, `Hey,
hey.' So who threw the whiskey in the well?

Singers: In the well. Now who...

Mr. WARD: For some reason, it took Decca, Millinder's label, over a year to
release "Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well." But when they did, the song took
off. By then Wynonie had already been fired from the Millinder band for
asking for pay raises, who's living back in LA. Since the hit was credited to
Millinder, Wynonie wasn't under contract and the myriad of independent labels
in Los Angeles came knocking at his door. He never said no and recorded for
FILO, Apollo, Aladdin, Hamptone, Bullet and others. A lot of early bebop
artists wound up in the pick-up recording bands behind him, Howard McGhee,
Oscar Pettiford and Teddy Edwards among them. Even weirder is this piano

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) Well, if you ever heard the boogie the way it should
be played, you'd love to boogie the rest of your days. Take this boogie.

Mr. WARD: It was Herman Blount's first session, but hardly his last. As
Sun Ra, he made hundreds of records during his lifetime, although in a much
different style. The problem was none of the scores of records Wynonie was
making sold very well. He was making his money touring but the real problem
was that he was writing his own material and he wasn't a very good songwriter.
The solution showed up one December night in 1947, in the form of two white
men from Cincinnati who knocked on his hotel door. A naked woman answered and
Wynonie was stretched out on the bed in a pair of pink silk undershorts, with
two others. Syd Nathan, the older of the men, owned King Records and Howard
Kessel worked for him. Nathan wanted King to become a force in black music
and Kessel thought Wynonie Harris was his ticket. He was right.

(Soundbite of "All She Wants to do is Rock")

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) Stop all the clocks. I just got the news that my baby
wants to rock. All she wants to do is rock. All she wants to do is rock.
All she wants to do is rock, rock and roll all night long.

Mr. WARD: "All She Wants to do is Rock" was Wynonie's big number one record
for King, sitting on the charts for three months in the summer of 1949.
Curiously, though, his most important record, the one that would change pop
music history, came and went in 1948 without ever charting.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) I heard the news, there's good rockin' tonight. Gonna
hold my baby tight as I can, tonight she'll know I'm a mighty man. I heard
the news, there's good rockin' tonight. Have you heard the news...

Mr. WARD: Roy Brown wrote the song and had the hit with it, but it was
Wynonie Harris' version Elvis Presley bought and played over and over and, he
hoped, copied with his own band. One of Nathan's smart moves was to take
country songs and have black artists record them, so Hank Penny's Western
swing hit, "Bloodshot Eyes," was rearranged for Wynonie Harris and sold like
crazy. Nathan had a whole stable of songwriters turning out material for him
and Wynonie took full advantage.

(Soundbite of "Bloodshot Eyes")

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) Now just because you're pretty and you think you're
mighty wise, you tell me that you love me, then you roll those big brown eyes.
When I saw you last week, your eyes were turning black. Go find the guy that
beat you up, ask him to take you back. Don't roll those bloodshot eyes at me.
I can tell you've been out on a spree. It's plain that you're lying when you
say that you've been crying, don't roll those bloodshot eyes at me. Now I
used to spend my money...

Mr. WARD: But after "Bloodshot Eyes" had its run of the charts in 1951,
Wynonie Harris fell victim to changing times. For one thing, he had a number
of very risque songs in his repertoire which was fine when the main market was
jukeboxes in bars, but not so fine once radio became the medium that made the
hits. For another thing, the R&B audience was turning toward vocal groups
instead of blues shouters. By 1954, he was reduced to recording junk like
"Good Mambo Tonight," and his King contract ended. He continued to perform
and his last gig was November 1967, on an all-star blues show at Harlem's
Apollo Theater. But his throat was acting up and it turned out to be cancer
of the esophagus and he died in LA on June 14th, 1969. He was Wynonie to the
end. They found a bottle of scotch in his bed when they moved his body.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

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