Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 21, 2000
Head: American Astronaut Describes His Experience on Mir
Sect: News; Domestic
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.
On today's FRESH AIR, spending five months aboard the dark, cluttered, smelly, and deteriorating Russian space station Mir. We talk with retired U.S. astronaut Jerry Linenger, who participated in a joint U.S-Russian mission on Mir in 1997. In his new book, "Off the Planet," he describes how he and the Russian cosmonauts struggled to keep themselves and Mir alive as they faced failing systems, fires, and even an unmanned cargo ship hurtling toward them at 18,000 miles per hour.
Surviving five months in space, coming up on FRESH AIR.
First, the news.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Jerry Linenger, is a former astronaut who spent five months aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1997. He traveled the equivalent distance of 110 round trips to the moon and back. He says working on board the Mir wasn't easy. The space station was in a state of deterioration, communication with Russian ground control was terrible, and something was always going wrong.
After surviving a couple of near-catastrophes, Linenger took a space walk at 18,000 miles an hour, some 250 miles above earth.
Linenger's presence on Mir was part of a cooperative mission between the U.S. and Russians to lay the ground work for an international space station. He was the only American on board and had to get by with his minimal skills speaking Russian.
He's written a new book about his experiences aboard the Russian space station called "Off the Planet."
Linenger was taken to the space station by the U.S. space shuttle "Atlantis." I asked him to describe what it looked like inside Mir.
JERRY LINENGER, "OFF THE PLANET": You know, when we first flew in to Mir, I got to admit it, compared to the shuttle, it had sort of the feel of going into your grandmother's cellar down in the basement, sort of a moldy smell to it, a little bit darkened. Electrical power on Mir is always at a premium, and therefore not many lights were on.
So it was very cramped and, I guess, claustrophobic feeling. I'm pretty good about not getting claustrophobic myself, so I can't say that it hit me that way. But it definitely hit me as a very confining, dark, damp sort of atmosphere when you fly in to Mir.
GROSS: And it also looks like, from the photos, like there's wires all over the place. (laughs)
LINENGER: There's a lot of dangling. It's about a -- at this stage, about 14-year-old space station, and just like a home that maybe wasn't wired correctly at the beginning, as you add on and put on new modules and new equipment, you need to run extension cords and wire cables and air ducts to blow the -- to keep the circulation going.
So it's a bag of spaghetti up there, lots of wires, and lots of possible mistakes is what that creates also, the cluttered effect up there can get you into trouble.
GROSS: What did space smell like, look like, taste like, sound like?
LINENGER: Oh, space, I'll tell you, when you fly into Mir, it smelled like -- sort of like dirty sweat socks in a guys' locker room.
LINENGER: Actual smell of space, though, that's a very interesting question. When we would open a hatch, for example, that was exposed to the vacuum of space, there's always a double hatch, and so you open the one hatch, you now have the pure smell of space. And it's a tough -- you know, any aroma is tough to describe, but it has a distinct smell, and it's sort of a burned-out after the fire, the next morning in your fireplace sort of smell.
And that's the real smell of the vacuum of space, and it was very distinctive. After we'd get through that hatch and open the next hatch, for example, if there was a resupply ship that just came up, you'd get the smell of fresh lemons, and that would just go through the air, and it was just an incredible contrast to that sock smell, dirty sock smell, or the burned-out smell of the vacuum of space. And then you'd get this smell of the earth.
GROSS: Does space have a sound?
LINENGER: When you're out there, for example during a spacewalk, it is utter silence. It's a vacuum, sound doesn't conduct. The sound of inside space station Mir was one of a factory, almost, with lots of turning equipment, noise level very high. And when we lost electrical power and moved to the dark side of the earth and everything ground to a halt and we started spinning through space, tumbling sort of out of control, the silence was just deafening, and a scary silence, I might add, I mean, so silent that it's just scary.
GROSS: How long did that go on for?
LINENGER: We had some power problems, and that went on -- took us about two days to recover from that. And every time you'd move to the dark side of the earth, it was darkness like you've never seen and silence that was scary. We worked with flashlights, eventually regained power.
GROSS: What was the typical day like, if there is such a thing as a typical day on board the space ship Mir?
LINENGER: There wasn't many typical days. At the beginning, though, the way it worked, an alarm would go off in the morning, and you'd have to check your watch immediately to make sure it was not a master alarm and rather just a morning wakeup call. That was usually around 8:00, so sort of leisurely, if you will, but you never got to bed before usually 1 in the morning.
You know, you'd get up and do your daily tasks of living, a little bit different and unique in space, of course. And go down and suck down a tube of dehydrated borscht or, you know, mashed potatoes, or some strange breakfast foods. And then you'd get to work. You'd check the schedule, and you were working from day to night, essentially, trying to do experiments and also trying to keep up with repairs that needed to be done to keep the space station alive.
You'd go to bed at night exhausted. I'd strap myself to the wall. Used to sleep upside-down on the wall, piece of Velcro around me, close my eyes, and I'd sleep like a baby.
GROSS: What were some of the experiments you had to carry out?
LINENGER: Had about 120 different experiments, looked at a lot of microbial sampling around Mir to see of any contamination, to see of -- if I, for example, introduced any new bacteria to the space station with my arrival. A lot of protein crystal growth experiments, metallurgy, melting samples, trying to get very pure alloys because up there, of course, you're -- you don't have the problem of settling of the heavier elements down to the bottom, and you get a very pure alloy.
You know, grew wheat up there, trying to look to the future of when you do space travel long distances and long periods of time. Just fascinating experiments, really, that really kept you hopping.
GROSS: Let's get back to how you slept. You slept upside-down, attached to...
LINENGER: (laughs) Slept upside-down, inverted, you know, a piece of Velcro around me. And the reason I did that is because there was a good fan on the floor. In space, warm air doesn't rise. There's no convection current. And so you have to have a fan to move the atmosphere around, or you will breathe yourself into an oxygen-depleted and carbon dioxide-rich bubble, and you'll wake up with a severe headache, hyperventilating, gasping for air.
So I would sleep inverted, a piece of Velcro around me, just sort of dangle on the wall with the fan blowing in my face.
GROSS: Did you sleep well in a gravity-free environment?
LINENGER: I slept pretty well. There was actually some sleep experiments I was doing. I had an eye sensor on, for example, look at my rapid eye movement sleep. I had electrodes on my head most nights. And if you looked at my sleep patterns, as the mission progressed, I was having less and less deep sleep and much more rapid eye movement sleep. And I would say on the last month of that five-month mission, I would wake up feeling very tired, and my sleep quality was going downhill.
GROSS: Do you think that was stress and anxiety, or something related to the atmosphere?
LINENGER: No, I think it has to do actually with your biorhythms losing their sense of day and night. And in space you're around the planet every 90 minutes, and every 45 minutes you're getting a sunrise-sunset, sunrise-sunset. And so you're going through about 15 of those a day. Your body has a very hard time setting the biorhythm, and you start drifting from your earth-length biorhythms of a 24-hour day.
You know, even the concept of time, when you think about it, it's an amazing world up there. We live in 24 hours in a day down here. You get up in space and you realize that that is an artificial thing we've created because we're earthlings. You get in space with an orbit every 90 minutes, and you realize 24 hours is meaningless, with day-night cycles every, you know, 45 minutes.
GROSS: Now, one of the things that happened to you in space was that you grew two inches because of the weightlessness. What's -- what happens to the spine in space?
LINENGER: You know, the first day you get up there, and you're an inch taller, and the next day I'm another inch taller, and I'm jumping, you know, with the best of them. I'm thinking, man, I can play in the NBA when I get back.
LINENGER: Unfortunately it doesn't work. After about two days your spine is stretched out. The muscles, the paraspinal muscles, have relaxed, your spine stretches out, and you remain at that height. As soon as you land and gravity starts yanking you back, you end up back at your normal height again. A lot of astronauts have a lot of problem with that, with a lot of back pain. And you'll see astronauts curled up sort of in the fetal position with Velcro straps round their legs to try to prevent that back pain. And sometimes they're forced to take different medications so that they can sleep at night.
GROSS: This is the back pain upon rearriving into the earth's atmosphere?
LINENGER: Actually, no, when you're in space, just from that stretching of the spine...
GROSS: Oh, oh.
LINENGER: ... it becomes uncomfortable, and the muscles around the vertebrae are not happy being stretched. And there's a lot of lower back pain and actually back pain throughout the back that causes a lot of sleepless nights for astronauts trying to adapt to space.
I'm very fortunate. I'm probably one in 10, I would say, of earthlings that can go to space and feel perfect from the get-go, no back pain, no nausea, no vomiting, no headaches, not very much fluid movement to my head, even, so I didn't have a stuffy feeling like a lot of astronauts experience.
GROSS: My guest is retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. We'll be back after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. He's written a new book about being in space. He spent five months aboard the space station Mir. His book is called "Off the Planet."
One of the things that I found really interesting is that you were expected to recycle urine for water.
LINENGER: (laughs) It's a closed ecosystem, and you need to recycle everything you can. We would take our urine, collect it using basically a fan device, some valves, close the valve down. We'd take the urine, convert it to water.
We'd be called by Mission Control Moscow to say, Drink that water, it's good stuff, and we'd say, Yeah, you drink it, we don't want to drink it. That's our urine. And instead we would take the water, H20, split the hydrogen off, you know, what's left over is oxygen, and we'd vent the hydrogen into space. That's an explosive gas, don't want that around. And we'd breathe the oxygen.
So essentially it's -- you know, your urine to water, water to oxygen, and essentially you breathe your urine up on space station Mir.
GROSS: It does sound better than drinking it.
LINENGER: (laughs) You know, I've drunk a lot of bad things. I've gone through Navy jungle survival school and eaten snakes and roots and everything else.
LINENGER: And, you know, I finally convinced myself, you know, I can drink my urine to be an astronaut. But I could not drink anyone else's urine. And the cosmonauts felt much the same way. And we decided we would use that urine water to make oxygen.
We would, though, use some sweat water, if you will, when you run on the treadmill you perspire, and that would get into the atmosphere. We'd condense that water, purify it, and use some of that water for rehydrating our foods.
GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned the treadmill. How did you exercise in space and have -- give your muscles a workout? Because part of what works out the muscles is the tension against gravity.
LINENGER: Space is a tough environment, and it's funny to say tough, because it is so effortless that it is hard to imagine. And I thought, you know, that I sort of knew what it would be like in weightlessness, but I surprised myself, and it's tough to describe. I can tell you, when I came back, first night in bed, in order to roll over, I had to grab my head, grab my shoulders, and yank myself against the pull of gravity that was pushing me down in that bed.
And so when you go to space and you're going to be there for five months, it's worse than me saying, Terry, you need to go to bed right now and get up in five months, because in bed at least you're resisting gravity. In space, it is effortless. Your body reacts to that by saying, I'm overbuilt. Your bones says, I am a structure that is far too strong, I don't need all this bone mass. And it starts dumping calcium. And unfortunately, it doesn't turn that off. And when I came back five months later, I had about a 13 bone loss in my hips and lower spine because of disuse.
In order to counter that, we try to exercise. And I would exercise religiously, two one-hour periods a day, get onto a treadmill, put on what looked like a windsurfer harness, yank myself down into 70-kilogram load plates, and try to run and work out using bungee cords to try to counteract the effects of effortlessness.
Unfortunately, that doesn't work, because you've still got 22 hours in the day where you're just floating.
GROSS: Did you get your bone mass back after staying on Mir?
LINENGER: It took me about -- after one year, I regained about half of that 13 percent loss. I was down to around 6 percent by doing MRI scans and different scans. At the two-year point I was back to about a 2 percent bone loss. Whether everyone gets it back is still something we need to look into. And hasn't been looked at that long. You go a long duration trip to Mars, for example, with a two-year timetable, there's going to be significant bone loss. And that could be a show-stopper.
GROSS: You're really a human experiment, having spent five months in space.
LINENGER: You sort of are. And, you know, it was fascinating for me with my medical background just to sort of observe myself and try to be as objective as I could in observing myself. And it's not just physical, I'll tell you. The psychological battle is the toughest one, being cut off, isolated, totally off the planet, away from your friends, away from 24-hour time. It is isolation that is just profound and unlike anything I ever experienced.
GROSS: You studied the psychology of isolation, and you worked in isolated environments for a long time. You were in the Navy for about 20 years, so you've worked on ships, you've worked on deserted islands. So you knew something about isolation. Describe how isolation in space is different from what you ever faced in the Navy.
LINENGER: You know, I tried to prepare myself, and I'll tell you, past life experiences are what helps you out to get through new experiences like being out in space and being a space man. But nothing I had done, you know, living on islands or going out to sea on a submarine or any of those past life experiences really prepared me for that profound isolation.
And I'll tell you, it was a five-month test for me, you know, seeing if I had the right stuff, if I could hold up, stay efficient, work hard.
GROSS: Did you go through any bad depressions?
LINENGER: I did not. I did observe some people that had serious what I'd call clinical depression up there. It is a psychological battle. My game plan, I watched someone that we overlapped with, one of the cosmonauts who looked like he had held up well, and he was at the end of his fifth month of stay on Mir, and I tried to mimic him for the first few months. And the main thing I learned is to try to stick to a schedule, try to stay, for example, on earth time, go to bed at midnight in Moscow, even though it was meaningless up there, exercise religiously, try to keep some routine in your life.
When I'd run on the treadmill, I'd have my CD playing, and I'd close my eyes and visualize myself back on earth, sort of, you know, running through my old favorite routes to sort of escape. And during those moments, some great things happened too. I could feel the presence of my dad there with me. He's deceased. He was there with Uncle Bill. They told me they're proud of what I'm doing.
So anyway, you do what you can to sort of escape, meditate, if you will, and get away from that shock of isolation.
GROSS: What CDs did you bring to space with you?
LINENGER: Oh, I had Bob Seeger playing real loud. He kept me going. I'm an old Detroit boy, so I had some old music there, Bruce Springsteen and, you know, anything to kind of liven things up. You had to always be careful when you shut your CD off, you didn't want to open it too soon or you'd have a flying saucer going through the space station into the -- you know, a CD went flying across like a saucer.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. He spent five months in space on the Russian space station Mir. Now he's written a new book about the five months in space called "Off the Planet."
GROSS: You were with two other astronauts, Russian astronauts while you were in space, and you had to speak Russian the whole time. This was part of a Russian-American cooperation program. When you're alone with two other people for five months and you're hundreds of miles away from earth, do you run out of things to talk about?
LINENGER: Do you run out of things to talk about? I'll tell you, with Russian language, you know, fairly new to me, I had about a year and a half crash course while I was training over in Star City, Russia. You know, it's hard to have much small talk in a language that's not your native tongue. The three of us really depended on each other. We were definitely a team up there. I knew I could depend on them, trust them.
But yes, you do run out of things to say after a while. The cultural barrier and, you know, of them being Russian and me being American, you know, you can't ask, you know, how the Red Wings did last week, or -- you know, you actually just start running out of things to talk about up there.
GROSS: You know what surprised me? You say the space station Mir had a good bar, and that although you didn't partake, that the two Russian cosmonauts, you know, did a fair amount of drinking. It's against NASA rules to drink while on the job, but you say you also didn't want to diminish your senses in any way when anything could happen.
But I was surprised to hear that they did drink.
LINENGER: There's a -- they have a smuggling operation that's sort of -- you know, everyone knows it's happening and they sort of ignore it, but they -- for example, when I unloaded my space suit, I was going to do a space walk in a brand-new Russian space suit. When I unloaded it from a resupply ship, there was a bottle of vodka stuffed in the sleeve.
So I would say this, though, it was the only place -- or my entire time in Russia there and in space, it was the only time that no one cared whether I drank or not. Over in Russia, there's toasts for this, toasts for that, and if you don't want to partake, it's still sort of the way it was back in the '60s here, where, you know, people are hitting you on the back saying, Hey, come on, you got to drink, we're all drinking.
But up in space, with a limited supply, I think my crew mates were glad that I did not partake. But they never got rip-roaring drunk or anything like that. It was more of an after-dinner, try to relax, and before they went to bed.
GROSS: I -- I...
LINENGER: But I didn't like the idea of not being 100 percent, because it was a very dangerous environment up there.
GROSS: I would imagine being hung over in space would not be pleasant.
LINENGER: (laughs) I don't think it would be good at all. There's enough space motion sickness going around up there that, you know, you need to adapt to that that's the you probably don't need. There's a lot of flying up there too, and drinking and flying don't mix very well. So it's probably not, in my mind, you know, a good idea.
GROSS: Retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. He's written a new book called "Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, what it's like to take a space walk at 18,000 miles an hour some 250 miles above earth. We continue our conversation with former U.S. astronaut Jerry Linenger.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. His new book, "Off the Planet," is about the five months he spent aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1997 as part of a cooperative mission between the U.S. and Russia.
Linenger says that when he traveled on the U.S. space shuttle, he never heard the master alarm go off. But on Mir, alarms went off two or three times a day, warning of oxygen failures, computer failures, and other major problems.
One time the alarm was set off by a fire that nearly destroyed Mir and the men aboard it.
Let's talk about the big fire that nearly destroyed you, your fellow astronauts, and the space station. What caused the fire?
LINENGER: The fire actually originated -- it was a large canister made out of metal, sort of looks like a garbage can, if you will, and it's filled with a slurry of oxygen-rich chemical. I'm in my module typing on a laptop computer up on the ceiling. I hear the blang-blang-blang master alarm going off -- again. I hit the Enter button. I sort of look around, and I'm almost (inaudible) -- could do diagnoses up there. And I look around and I notice the walls aren't moving, so I know we haven't lost what's called attitude control. We're not tumbling.
I notice my computer's still working. We haven't lost power. I hit the Enter button, I push off to go turn the corner to go look at the master alarm panel. Before I can get there, Vasily Sablaev (ph) comes flying fast around the corner, and I yell out, "Seriosni (ph)?" And he says, "Da, ochan pejar (ph)." I asked, "Is it serious?" He said, "Yes, very, fire."
He really didn't have to respond, because behind him I just saw a big trail of smoke coming, just billowing out of the module. Continue forward, get to the caution/warning panel, look down, looks like a Christmas tree lit up. We got fire warning lights flashing, smoke warning lights, low voltage lights.
I look down the length of the module, sort of like looking down the back end of a school bus, if you will, and out of that solid fuel oxygen canister is coming a big flame. It's about three feet long, sparks flying out the end of it, smoke billowing out. Within about 30 seconds I can't see the fingers in front of my face, the smoke was just everywhere fast.
I looked down at the hull, it's made out of aluminum. Aluminum's about an eighth of an inch think, and that's our protection against the vacuum of space. I look down, realize if this blowtorch of a fire points down, it's going to puncture the hull, rapid decompression, quick suffocation.
I actually said out loud, I said, "Not good," were my first words, you know, understatement of my life.
Turned back, went to get an oxygen mask, smoke everywhere, can't see the fingers in front of my face. Start feeling my way along the bulkhead, feeling like I'm about 25 meters under water, no air, feeling lightheaded. Finally locate my personal respirator, grab the rubber mask out, yank it over my head. I activate the oxygen canister by throwing a lever. I breathe in, and I get nothing.
Check the position of the lever again. It's set correctly. I breathe in again. Mask collapses around my face. I've got a failed respirator. Throw the mask off.
I look around as I'm feeling my way along the wall, trying to find a second respirator, and I yell out -- actually I say, "Katherine (ph), I love you," to my wife. And I say, "I'm really sorry. Looks like I'm not going to make it back."
GROSS: But you did, but you found another respirator.
LINENGER: I did get to a second respirator...
GROSS: And the fire burned itself out, in -- what? -- around 14 minutes?
LINENGER: Well, we went through one fire extinguisher, we went through a second fire extinguisher. I went through a third fire extinguisher. I was heading back for the fourth one when Vasily yells, "Fire's out." And about 14 minutes of burning, I'll tell you, in a closed space station, 14 minutes is a long time with the flame flying.
GROSS: What are some of the unique qualities of fire in outer space?
LINENGER: Fire, for one thing, it's not flame-shaped. Warm air doesn't rise, so when a flame burns, the warm air does not rise and fresh air does not come in underneath it. Instead, it burns in its pure state as a sphere. And it will burn up the layer of oxygen around it and put itself out, if you're not replenishing that oxygen by blowing a fan on it, or if the -- you know, the other way it can happen, or the source itself can have oxygen, as in the case of the fire on board that was out of control. That was a oxygen-rich chemical, and it had all the oxygen it needed.
But other objects -- you know, if you light a piece of paper up there, it will eventually burn the oxygen in the boundary layer around it and it will put itself out without any effort on your part.
GROSS: So how much damage was done to the space station by the fire?
LINENGER: The fire melted some of the valves and that behind it. The heat was intense. But as far as anything debilitating and long term, once we cleaned it up and turned filters back on and swabbed everything down -- you know, you don't want the particulates floating because you're going to be breathing them for the next four months. Really, the long-term effect of that was negligible.
GROSS: You couldn't very well get out the smoke by opening up the window.
LINENGER: (laughs) You -- goes through your head, I'll tell you, with that flame roaring, I went by a window, and first instinct tells you, Open a window! Second, you think, Call 911, get the heck out of here, you know, gets through your head also. Unfortunately, the rescue vehicle's on the wrong side of the fire, and it's melting metal, and so there's no oxygen to go that direction. But, yes, all those things that, you know, just by instinct, getting low, for example, immediately I go low to get a gasp of fresh air. Unfortunately, in space warm air doesn't rise, smoke doesn't rise, smoke is everywhere.
So all your earth instincts do not serve you well up there.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jerry Linenger. He's a retired astronaut who's written a new book called "Off the Planet," about spending five months aboard the Russian space station Mir. He was there with two Russian cosmonauts.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is astronaut Jerry Linenger. He spent five months aboard the Russian space station Mir, and he's written a new book called "Off the Planet."
Now, you disposed of your trash by doing what?
LINENGER: Well, we would get a resupply ship up there. It was -- it looks like an old capsule like our old Mercury capsule would look like. It's filled with the supplies we need, food, some extra water, space suits, whatever we needed, repair parts. After we unloaded it, we would then use it as sort of a garbage truck, and we would take all our discards and stuff it into that capsule, and it would detach from the space station. The ground would control it, Mission Control Moscow. They'd fire some thrusters. It would reenter the atmosphere, burn up, and essentially disintegrate all the garbage.
GROSS: Now, once, after you sent away the "Progress" filled with your decomposing garbage and broken equipment, Russian ground control told you that it was going to redock with the space station. Why?
LINENGER: The Russians were interested in testing whether we could do a manual docking of this unmanned resupply ship. And that sounds like you can't do that because it's unmanned, but it was a remote-control setup where there was a camera inside the capsule and a monitor inside the space station. And so my crew mate, Vasily Sablaev, would stand there with control sticks, look at the monitor, and would manually fly the spacecraft in as if he were sitting in the spacecraft by looking at the view in the monitor.
Unfortunately, the monitor failed, and so you have a spacecraft coming at you at about 18,000 miles an hour that, regardless of how hard we looked, we could not locate, Vasily firing away at the thrusters, trying to brake this thing. When we finally realized it was coming at us at an uncontrollable speed, very, very tense moment, sweat pouring from his brow.
We'd run back to the window, you know, trying to describe which direction that capsule was going when he would put an impulse in was very difficult, because there's nothing else out there, no other objects that you can say, you know, It's going right, left, up, down, because all that is earth description, and it doesn't work in space.
So the "Progress" went zooming by us, missed us by what from our vantage up there looked like a matter of, you know, 10 or 15 meters. And we held our breath as it whizzed by, hoping it wouldn't crash into any of the solar panels or into the hull of the Mir. Very tense moment.
GROSS: What did you say to Russian ground control when you survived?
LINENGER: Well, Vasily, the commander, was besides himself. He let the ground know exactly how we felt about an untested procedure, trying to dock this 18,000-mile-an-hour spacecraft sort of in the blind. And that was probably one of the low points of my time up there, actually. The broken trust between what the ground was doing in Moscow and what we cosmonauts and astronauts were trying to do up there in space.
GROSS: It sounds like on the whole relations between the astronauts and ground control was not very good.
LINENGER: The relationship was very strained, and it was a matter of -- you know, you really have to trust the people on the ground. Again, I got to emphasize, the ground in this case was Mission Control Moscow, not Mission Control Houston. And you got the impression that they wanted to keep that space station alive at all costs. And you also had the impression that we as the crew up there better just do exactly what they say, hang in there with that space station, again at all costs, and maybe the space station was more important than we were.
GROSS: Now, you took a five-hour space walk when you were aboard the space station Mir. Can you describe what the procedure is? Like, what were you walking on or through or...
LINENGER: First of all, you know, walking in space, what an incredible thing! You're essentially a spacecraft. You're out there by yourself, dangling, in my case, on the end of an arm, you know, 18,000 miles an hour, earth below, the heavens around you, the stars -- you see probably four times the number of stars that you'd see from the best vantage point on earth.
It's just a, you know, yahoo feeling of, Wow, incredible! And something that -- you know, I can look at it, I guess, frame by frame in my mind. You almost don't forget the split-second-by-split-second, it's such an incredible, incredible experience.
The actual mechanics of it, you climb into the back door of a space suit, latch it. As scuba divers know, you're worried about the bends. It's a very similar thing. The space suit's going to be at half-normal pressure. And so the first thing you do is breathe 100 percent oxygen to get the nitrogen out of your blood so that you don't get bent when you go out there, which means nitrogen bubbles forming in your arteries and causing physiological problems.
Next thing I did is get my two tethers ready. I'd got carabineers, if you will, hooks on the end of about a four-foot rope. I open the hatch up, push it open, and then start being a mountain climber, start hooking my hooks on exterior parts of the space station, working my way along the surface, dragging a 500-pound experiment behind me as if it weighed nothing.
GROSS: Now, when you first got outside the space ship, what did you experience physically?
LINENGER: Physically, you know, it's just a -- the sight is overwhelming, just to be out there dangling as an independent spacecraft. And it's just, you know, total uplifting experience. As the space walk progressed, I had to climb on the end of an arm. When that arm got swung through open space, I felt the feeling of detachment, felt that I was out there all alone, spacecraft, as I looked back, you know, space station Mir is looking like a Tinker Toy. And I had a feeling of total detachment, and it also hit me, gut level, I felt the speed, I felt 18,000 miles an hour, and I felt as if I was falling off a cliff, just screaming with speed.
And I did what I think 99 percent of the people in the world would do, you know, I just grabbed on for dear life, white-knuckled terror, you know, fear, overwhelming. And mumbled to myself, "Not good," again, which was one of my expressions I used a lot on Mir. You know, and then I told myself, Hey, I got five hours of work to do, I've been training on the bottom of swimming pools for the last six months before the flight, and I'm going to get this job done somehow.
I tricked myself. What I did, I looked down at the earth. I looked back up again. I said, (speaks in Russian), counted to five in Russian, looked back down at the earth, and I said, Jerry, it's OK to be falling at 18,000 miles an hour as long as you don't hit the bottom.
And rationally, I knew I was in orbit. I was going 18,000 miles an hour. But we were going to keep orbiting. I wasn't going to hit the earth. Took the fear, tucked it away in a compartment of my brain that I was glad I had, let go of my grip, and got swung out and continued with my job.
GROSS: Did it feel good after this exhilarating but frightening five-hour mission to get back into the Mir?
LINENGER: It -- with some regrets. It felt good to get back in. I'll tell you, though, on the end of the arm on the way back, I swung out, I had that feeling of overwhelming fear, overcame it, went and did the job. I got swung back in the other direction, same point in space, same sensation. This time, I just yelled out, "Yahoo!" I detached myself with my tethers and carabineers, pushed myself off, dangled, and said, My God, this is incredible, you know, A-ride at Disneyland. There's nothing like this.
When I got back inside, closed the hatch, got out of the suit, it was a good feeling of accomplishment, which I will tell you is what kept you going on space station Mir, that sense of accomplishment that you're getting something done that's worthwhile. You're out there colonizing space. That's what gets you through the hard times.
GROSS: Well, you couldn't exactly celebrate afterwards with a hearty meal.
LINENGER: No, but I did suck down some dehydrated, you know, mashed potato.
LINENGER: And my favorite out of a tube is the Russian, you know, jellied piked perch. If you want to try a real delicacy there, that's what you want, jellied piked perch. I mean, sucked out of a tube. You know, I won't go near that stuff again in my life.
LINENGER: But up there, anything was fine, and, you know, it's OK. But you get done with that space walk, I went back to my module, I actually wrote a letter to my son, John. He was 1 years old. And along the way, I decided that, you know, it's important to let your sons and daughters know what you're doing in life and that you love them, and what you stand for, what you hope and dream for them. And I wrote him a note that night and I said, "John, your dad has courage. Letting go of that pole when I was going 18,000 miles an hour and feeling the speed, that took courage." Got to my wall, strapped myself on, closed my eyes, slept like a baby.
GROSS: Wow. (laughs)
Would you describe a little bit what it was like to stare at earth from 300 miles away from it? What did -- what could you see, what kind of detail could you see?
LINENGER: They're spectacular. You've got the whole curvature. I'll describe, for example -- I'm over Florida, I'm looking down, seeing the peninsula of Florida. I look up at Cape Cod, St. Lawrence Seaway, the ice is moving out, it's January, it's moving into the Atlantic Ocean, hitting the Gulf Stream, these incredible thousand-mile whorls defined by these three-mile ice chunks, thousands of them out in the Gulf Stream, eddy currents peeling off. I look to the west, I see the whole Mississippi Delta, the whole Mississippi Basin, curvature of the earth up ahead.
You know, incredible.
GROSS: Did you have a changing sense of what home meant? I mean, I think of home as being, like, my house, my neighborhood, my city, and my state. But did it become, like, the planet, where there's oxygen?
LINENGER: The planet is home, and you get a whole different perspective. I've said that that experience in space changed my life. In the third phase of my life, I see things a lot differently. And the major change that took place in me is a change of perspective. You look down at the earth, I'm flying over Italy, it looks like a boot, Sicily, Sardinia, you know, volcano, smoke coming out of Mount Aetna, the Balkan mountains. Got a one-liner that day that said, People are slaughtering each other down there in the Balkans. You look down at it, you say, Man, I'd love to grab the world leaders, pull them up here, let them take a look at our planet, one big, whole planet. And those type of conflicts would stop.
GROSS: My guest is retired astronaut Jerry Linenger. We'll be back after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is astronaut Jerry Linenger. And in his new book, "Off the Planet," he describes his experiences when he spent five months aboard the Russian space station Mir.
You returned to earth for the space station Mir on the space shuttle with American astronauts. Would you describe what you experienced physically after five months in space, reentering the earth's atmosphere on the space shuttle?
LINENGER: The reentry itself was just phenomenal, and, you know, it boggles the mind what we can do when human beings collectively set their minds to something. Mission Control Houston is controlling at that point, of course. We're in shuttle, we're over Australia. We flip the shuttle upside-down, inverted engines pointed in the direction we're flying, the direction of the velocity vector. They give you the go for de-orbit burns. You fire the engines. You feel the shudder. You flip yourself back over, you start plunging through the atmosphere, big fireball all around you, bouncing up and down, just a wild ride all the way in.
If you don't like turbulence in an airplane, you would not like a reentry in the shuttle. It is the ultimate turbulence. You're just plunging through that atmosphere. Myself, people are very concerned, astronaut before me said he felt like he weighed 2,000 pounds on landing, couldn't lift his arms off the mid-deck floor. Russians routinely, they reach into the capsule, pull them out after four or five months in space, plop them on a bed, roll them into the medical tent.
So during that reentry, I'm getting calls from the ground, How you doing in the mid-deck, Jerry? I'm moving my hand up and down, I'm actually feeling pretty good, dropping my ink pen a lot, because I'm used to it floating as I set it out there. But lifting my arms, and they're feeling very, very heavy, but nonetheless pure joy, exhilaration, I'm heading home. Charlie on the flight deck yells out, "Jerry, tally-ho, West Coast," and I'll tell you, it just feels good to be over the U.S. again.
Serious calls come in, How are you doing? I say I'm doing great, it feels good to be home, five months.
GROSS: Were you able to stand up and walk out of the capsule?
LINENGER: Well, the shuttle does its final turn, which is a manual one. We do the landing, roll out, deceleration. They open that hatch, I'll tell you, that air comes in. After five months breathing air made out of urine, maybe that's why it was so wonderful.
LINENGER: You know, the fresh earth air hits you. And, my God, it's just -- ah, you know, it's just -- tastes good.
Flight surgeon comes on board, says, "Jerry, got two guys out here, stretcher, you can sit here for an hour, two hours, whatever you need. We'll come get you when you're ready." And I said, "Tom, you know, I've been in space for five months, overcome a lot of difficulties. Started something, I'm going to finish it. I'm an officer in the United States Navy, and we don't get carried off on stretchers. And I'm going to walk off this thing, or I'm going to crawl off this thing. But please don't touch me."
Stood up, I tell you, my chest started heaving like I've never felt it. My vision started going gray, closing in, closing in, felt like I'm pulling too many G's in an F-14 or something. About to black out. And right at that moment, my chest kicks into a gear I didn't know I have. Remember what gravity's all about, pump the blood back up to my brain, open my vision back up. I shuffled forward, and I'm sure I wasn't walking pretty, but I was on my own two feet, 90 degree turn, climbed over Mount Everest, which was actually my seat, about a foot high, felt like Mount Everest, felt like you were sitting on my shoulders.
Crawled out the side hatch, two big guys there with a stretcher, surprised to see me. Said, "Welcome back, Captain Linenger." I shook their hands, told them, "Man, it's great to be back." Walked away. They did a couple claps for me, said, "You make us proud, Captain Linenger."
It felt good to be on my own two feet, and walking again.
GROSS: What's happening with the Russian space station Mir? Is it still up there?
LINENGER: The Russian space station Mir is still up there. It is unmanned, and there's now talk of trying to send a manned mission up there to try to revive it, and talk of space tourism, trying to sign someone up. I think the price tag for the first person was $40 million, and everyone thereafter for $25 million to go up and go live on Mir for a few days and then come back.
GROSS: What are you doing professionally now, now that you're a retired astronaut?
LINENGER: Well, I decided, when I retired -- actually, Jim Lovell was commenting on the Mir, and he thought Mir should be retired with dignity. And I took those words to heart kind of on a personal level also. I told myself, you know, I did the space walks, been away from my family for five months. I've got my three little boys at home. I enjoy raising them, being with them, being with family. I'm not bored at all. Everyone asks, Are you bored back on earth after such an adventure?
I'm not bored at all. You know, I count my blessings every day. The air's here, carefree existence, family around you, beauty of the earth. You know, I'm very content living a pretty simple life.
So that's what I chose to do. I wrote a book. I wanted to have a book for my three sons so they knew what their dad was doing up there. And I'm doing some speaking around the country. But essentially, I decided I needed a couple of years to sort of recover and get physically healthy again and get mentally healthy again.
GROSS: One more thing. I know -- I'm sure one of the things you really looked forward to about returning to earth was having a nice shower. Describe how the shower felt the first time you took one when you returned to earth.
LINENGER: What a let-down! You know, I was up there, you know, five months, no bath, no shower, no haircut, shave once a week if I'm lucky, if I could find the time. You come back, man, I was just dreaming about a nice shower. But I come back, I'll tell you, the transition from space man to earthling was a tougher one than the other way around, from earthling to space man. When I got in that shower, it felt like I was being bombarded by pellets. The force of the water hitting me felt like I was going to drown. My instinct as a space man was telling me, This water's going to float, it's going to drown me.
So it was very uncomfortable, my first glorious shower that I had dreamed about ended up being spent sitting on the floor with the water dribbling out and kind of giving myself a sponge bath.
GROSS: Jerry Linenger, thank you so much for sharing some of your experiences and perceptions with us.
LINENGER: Thank you, Terry, for having me.
GROSS: Jerry Linenger is the author of the new book "Off the Planet," about his five months aboard the Russian space station Mir.
FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Monique Nazareth, Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, and Naomi Person, with Ann Marie Baldonado and Patty Leswing, research assistance from Brendan Noonam.
I'm Terry Gross.
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jerry Linenger
High: U.S. astronaut Jerry Linenger participated in a joint U.S.-Russian mission on Mir in 1997. In his new book, "Off the Planet," he describes how he and the Russian cosmonauts struggled to keep themselves and Mir alive as they faced failing systems, fires, and even an unmanned cargo ship hurtling toward them at 18,000 miles per hour.
Spec: Astronautics and Space; Technology; Business; Travel
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End-Story: American Astronaut Describes His Experience on Mir
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