Ep. 297: Space Stations, Part 2 — Mir

Last week we introduced the history of space stations and focused on the US and Soviet stations that were launched. This week we look at one of the longest running missions ever launched: Mir. From its launch and construction to its fiery finale, Mir helped both the Russians and the Americans extend their understanding of what it actually takes to live in space.

Transcript: Space Stations Pt 2: Mir


Astronomy Cast episode 297 for Monday, March 11, 2013 – Space Stations, Part 2: Mir
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts based journey through the cosmos. Where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Fraser: Hi Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Fraser: I’m good, good. A little stuffed up. A little bit of a head cold, chest cold-thing going on. I know you’re suffering from your seasonal allergies.
Pamela: Yeah, and those seasonal allergies like to cause other things to grow with the pollen and the sinuses is so charming!
Fraser: Yeah! (Laughter) So it’s beautiful but you don’t want to go out and check it out because it’s just going to attack you with its pollen goodness.
Pamela: It’s death from the plants instead of death from the skies.
Frasier: Death from the plants.
Pamela: Right.
Fraser: Alright. So do we have any interesting announcements? Do we still have any openings for people looking to join our astronomy classes?
Pamela: Yes. So there are,…and this only pertains to the people who are watching it live, there are five more hours to sign up for the few remaining spots, in our Cosmology Class. So go to CosmoQuest.org/classes to learn more and we will be repeating that later on. So go express your interest in email if you want to sign up at a later date.
Fraser: And, Dr. M.R. Francis – he joined us and he’s the Bowler Hat Astronomer?
Pamela: Yes.
Fraser: He joined us on the Weekly Hangout on Friday and he got to tackle the big updates to dark matter; the potential discovery to dark matter. And he did a great job. So he’s definitely got his cosmology chops in particle physics chops.
Pamela: He’s writing the book on it.
Fraser: He wrote the book on it. Ok, great. Let’s get rolling then.
Fraser: Last week we introduced the history of space stations and focused on the US and Soviet stations that were launched after the Apollo era. This week we look at one of the longest running missions ever launched: Mir. From its launch and construction to its fiery finale, Mir helped both the Russians and the Americans extend their understanding of what it actually takes to live in space.
Fraser: So, we are now moving from my childhood to my professional career in history here in that I can remember Mir…I guess I wasn’t a child, I was in my early 20s when Mir launched. I was actually there reporting on some of the later missions and it’s final….
Pamela: What year do you think it launched?
Fraser: Didn’t it launch in the 80s?
Pamela: 1986.
Fraser: ’86, ok, yeah, so I was still a child; I was still a teenager..sorry…
Pamela: (Laughter) Say, you’re not that much older!
Fraser: Yeah, I’m not that much older…and then but amazingly, ….I was a teenager when it launched and there were missions, but then I had become an astronomy journalist by the time it was ready to deorbit in the early 90s.
Pamela: This was a very long lived, it….
Fraser: Sorry, in the 2000s. Sorry, in the early 2000s. Man, I cannot get my numbers straight.
Pamela: It’s that kind of a Monday. Um, yeah, it was a really long lived mission. It went from 1986; it came thundering down through the atmosphere in 2001; and along the way, it survived the downfall of the Soviet Union. It transferred hands from the Soviet Space Program to the Russian Space Program. It went from being a Cold War platform to one that was visited by multiple nations including converting a docking port originally designed for the Soviet Space Plane Buran into one that allowed the U.S. Space Shuttle to happily dock with Mir. Yeah, this was one heck of a mission.
Fraser: So, let’s go back then and begin at the beginning. What led up to Mir and what began that as the next big space station. When last we saw our heroes, there was the US Sky Lab and there was the Salyut Stations. But Mir was a whole other order of magnitude. Sort of size, complexity, weight and the kind of missions they were going to be doing.
Pamela: So it gets talked about as a third generation space station and the ISS is also a third generation space station. The first generations are things that get launched. They stay in space. You use them with one crew and then they are dead.
Second generations were single launch-one module space station like the Salyut Series toward the end. Crews came and went and it got restocked and it was a long lived, maintained platform to live on in space.
These third generation space stations, they went to the next step and they were constructed out of multiple modules and constructed on orbit allowing basically updates, new experiments and a growth platform that, as money allowed, they could continue to grow the system they had – kind of like an advanced Lego block system built on orbit.
Fraser: So how many pieces does it have?
Pamela: A lot! (Laugh) It gets complicated to ask how many pieces does it have because there’s all of the main modules that it had that are the things human beings can move through. Then there are the things that got mounted on it that people couldn’t go in to. Then there’s the experiments that came and went over time. So in general while it’s fair to say this was basically a many-armed monster; a six arm monster that had eight major components with all of the different things coming off its sides – I don’t think you can simply say it had “this many” pieces because it was used just like any laboratory a variety of different ways over the course of its life time with experiments that were mounted on the inside coming and don’t going over time.
Fraser: But the construction would feel very familiar to what’s been happening with the International Space Station. It was built in pieces.
Pamela: And what’s kind of awesome is unlike the International Space Station that has this careful symmetry, careful floor planning. This really looks, basically like a kid took whole bunch of different toy spacecraft and CRAMMED them together to see what he could get. Where the International Space Station has its main banks of solar arrays, with the Soviet Mir, each component had its own solar arrays -its own photovoltaic systems. Each module in many ways was self-sufficient. There were a few exceptions about the docking module was powered by the rest of the space station. But more or less these are a bunch of individual multiple generations of technology pieces that repeatedly got plugged together over time.
Fraser: Yeah, and it’s quite amazing how many they put into this, how many of these pieces there are, how many each one are self-reliant and how they constructed this thing.
Have you ever read, I think it was called ‘Dragon Fly’? It’s a book about the Mir Space Station. It goes into some of the…it’s done from the point of view of a….he gives you a…he was a British astronaut and working with NASA and talks about the craaaazy stuff that happened near the end of it. By the time it was nearing the end of its life, we hinted at this last week, it was turning into a pretty nasty place to live.
Pamela: Yeah. They had a couple of different fires and in one case the fire was actually a little bit more adventuresome than one would want. This occurred while they were in the process of swapping out crews. So instead of only having only three people on board, which is the standard crew for Mir, they had six people on board. But they only had respirator systems for three and because they are in the process of unloading and redoing things and stuff, there were hoses in the way being able to get to one of the Soyuz’s escape modules. Had they not been able to get the fire under control…, and the fire extinguishers were attached to the wall and they could not take them off and take them into the fire…had they not been able to get the fire under control, they would have definitely lost at least three people if not everybody.
Fraser: And there was a time when one of the progress supply craft crashed into it…..
Pamela: It got crashed into it. An there was another case where it was trying to dock, and it couldn’t quite dock and during a spacewalk to figure what the heck was going on, they discovered a loose bag of garbage that had somehow escaped into space and was blocking the docking hatch. That’s like the crazy ‘Why won’t my automatic garage close?’ and you realize there’s an empty McDonald’s can. Except this is a spaceship!
Fraser: If I recall correctly, the Russians, the Soviets use this automated docking system, while the Americans always dock manually and they had this camera system so they could see. The Soviets had it all set up, so you could imagine the docking attempted to happen and then bumping into the garbage.
Pamela: Arumba Gon Wrong is all that’s coming to my mind.
Fraser: But before we get into the later stages and where things started to go a little….
Pamela: Awry
Fraser: Awry. A little long of in the tooth…but let’s talk about the records because this was, before the International Space Station, it was the largest thing that had ever been orbited around the earth…
Pamela: And up until 2010 it was the longest manned thing, or woman thing, or human thing in space and it accomplished vast amount of science.
One of the things in its construction that made me particularly pleased is with the International Space Station, we started from scratch. We built evvvvvrything from scratch. But the Russians don’t work that way. The Soviets didn’t work that way. And while they were in the process of building it they actually went over to the last Salyut that was still in orbit and they grabbed all of the science experiments off of it and too them over to Mir so they could keep doing the science. They took the scientific instruments and brought them over. They had an entire compartment installed that was dedicated to bio chemistry experiments including micro gravity chemistry to grow crystals in space – thus the name (Crystals in Space). So this was a platform designed pretty much from the ground up as a science platform. That’s why it was there. And along the way, they did all these inadvertent experiments on what happens when you stick people in space for too long and trap them there. So it was kind of amazing both the purposefully broken records and the accidentally broken records that occurred.
Fraser: So what were some of the purposely broken records they were going for? The longest human space flight clearly.
Pamela: Yes, the longest human space flight, the longest space flight manned by humans, highest number of humans in space at one time, all the basics: longest spacewalks, most spacewalks in shortest period of time. All of those things, one after another were getting broken.
Fraser: Now you said some unexpected records that they broke.
Pamela: Yes. I think my favorite story, mostly because I was living my own version of it in a way, I went to the Soviet Union in 1991 leaving America on the day the first Desert Storm was started and returned to America two weeks before the Soviet Coup. And so I was there watching the restlessness occur and had one of these, “I probably need to leave now” type of thoughts going through my head. I was just a high school kid on a foreign exchange program. And when the Soviet Coup occurred, I was watching it fairly closely and one of the stories that caught my attention was this story of Cosmonaut Third-class Sergei Krikalev. And this poor guy was up in space, orbiting the Mir Space Station and they didn’t have the money to launch a rescue mission to bring him back. So he’s up there. (Pause) Economic disputes are going on. Fragmentation of the Soviet Union is taking place. Where he’s supposed to land is no longer part of the Soviet Block. It’s now its own independent country. And eventually they were able to bring him back. But, yeah, he was up there for longer than he anticipated. And there are many interesting news articles titles about: The Stranded Cosmonaut; The Man Who No Longer Wanted to Fly. And can you imagine the situation where of you going into space, hero of your nation and you come back and your nation no longer exists, land into a nation that didn’t exist when you took off and now you are a citizen of a country that also didn’t exist when you took off.
Fraser: So he was up there …it was Volaire Polikov right? He was up there for 437 days. Is that the one.
Pamela: This was Sergei Krikalev; he was up there for 313 days.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: So he wasn’t the record holder but he was up there much longer than he intended to be.
Fraser: Right. Because typically I know their missions, originally I know they wanted them to be up about six months or so, so they didn’t know what was going to happen to the astronauts beyond a certain point. And being up in space in the micro gravity, really wears down the body and you lose a lot of your bone mass.
Pamela: And when Sergei got back, he had to be supported by soldiers and he was very dizzy. There were health side effects. So it was kind of a mystifying situation psychologically damaging situation; and not particularly healthy for your bones situation.
Fraser: And you get extra radiation. But then as I mentioned, the longest is 437 days by Volaire Polikov, which is crazy!
Pamela: …And that was more on purpose.
Fraser: That was the plan, was 430 days, like, ‘Let’s push this to the outer limits!’
Pamela: Yeah. So there was some more challenging and less challenging. I think one of my favorite stories of one of the crews that went up was probably Shannon Lewsige. She was an astronaut; one of the early woman astronauts elected by NASA. She was an astronaut starting in the late 70s. She flew multiple times during the space shuttle program. And then for a long time she held the US record for the largest number of days for a US person in space. And she took off in 1996 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis and ended up in space for over 180 days with two cosmonauts that apparently spent most of the flight bickering with one another. So according to stories that you hear when you get people at NASA at the correct level of, either exhausted or slightly intoxicated, you hear about how she spent most of her flight, basically, ‘You go to that corner.’ And, ‘You go to that corner.’ – while running her bio chemistry experiments. And this kind of an awesome, awesome reality happens in space. We may call these people heroes, but they are also humans.
Fraser: And you were mentioning that she was a NASA astronaut that NASA got involved in the Mir game pretty heavily and sent several missions with the space shuttle Atlantis, they modified Mir to be able to dock with Atlantis, it was actually quite a great era of cooperation.
Pamela: It really was. There’s a period here in the US where, rather than building our own space station, we gave good hard thought to, ‘Well, what would it take to just keep adopting and keep flying Mir?’
Now on one level there was the problem that Mir was just kind of dirty, smelly, awful. But, of course now the ISS is too, so, whose talk! But on the other hand there were problems because of the way it was built it gets a lot of drag, it had to constantly be boosted into higher orbits. And then with the fires and the crashing of the progress and things, it was getting a little beat up. So eventually the idea of keeping Mir was abandoned but in the process of leading up to (asking the question): ‘Do we keep or do we pitch Mir?’ there was this new cooperation that began in 1994. So the Soviet Coup occurred summer of 1991. That was when Yeltsin took over, that was when it became Russia instead of the Soviet Union, and you saw the collapse of the Soviet Bloc with Lithuania, Estonia, Kyrgyzstan, (I’m going to mangle that one). Many of the Soviet bloc nations became independent countries. In 1994 the United State and the New Russian Republic began feeling one another out to do joint missions with phase 1 of this being the Space Shuttle Discovery going on a mission that included Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. In 1995 the space shuttle went to Mir. As I said, they reconfigured a docking port that was originally designed for the “never really flown to space” Buran Space Plane. They put that into play for the space shuttle instead. And they kept doing missions year after year after year all the way through the 90s. In 2000s, that was when the program started to wind down due to safety concerns and also because the scientific return after the Spector Science Model failed to make it, it just wasn’t what it been anticipated. And Mir was a science platform. So, that pretty much brought an end to the program. There was talk for a while of selling Mir, which I find to be just awesome. But in the end that didn’t happen either.
Fraser: It almost happened. But I think one of the things really is interesting is how now when you look at the international space station crews, especially right at the beginning, there was like, one Russian and two Americans, or one American and two Russians that there was really this emphasis. And for a big chunk of the 90s, Americans were learning Russian, they were going to Russia, they were training at Star City….
Yeah, you did?
Pamela: Well, I learned Russian and I worked with Soviet scientists because in the early 90s we were all recognizing that even while the Cold War was going on that it’s these two nations that will have the greatest scientific return.
A British scientist I worked with was Jake Nolsterr, he was part of a program in England that some of their top students to train at Star City and it was recognized this was the direction we have to go. And I have to think astronomers are more likely to speak bad Russian than they are to speak any other foreign language.
Fraser: Yeah and again, I think it was in Dragonfly, just talking about training because a lot of the times these were your corn fed American astronauts that haven’t learned a lick of Russian, although in many cases they were super geniuses. So they go over there and they spend this time training and learning the language and going through a battery of medical tests to be able to serve on a Russian space station. When you think about how the Cold War was still kind of going on or it just ended and already these plans of collaboration were already in the works. I think it was a pretty interesting thing that happened.
Pamela: Yeah. And by the late 90s it was recognized that if you were going to apply for the US Astronaut Program you had to be fluent in Russian. And so it was interesting talking with people. We had some at the University of Texas who were applying for the Astronaut Core. They spoke fluent Russian. They had their EMT Certification. They were pilots. They were scientists. You had to check every box to have a chance of being selected, let alone becoming a finalist. You had to have all those boxes checked.
Fraser: Just another way that astronauts are incredible human beings because they, “Oh yeah, sure, I’ll learn Russian, but give me enough time, I’ll learn Russian.” Yeah.
Pamela: It’s easier than learning English to be honest.
Fraser: Oh is it? You’ve gone through it. Ok, so I’d like to focus a bit on some of those disasters because there were a couple of those events that were quite scary that happened with Mir. The one was the fire. You went into this a bit, but can you give us the story what happened with that fire?
Pamela: Um. Fires happen. I’m not sure what else to say on this one. They had a malfunction on one of their solid fuel oxygen generators. And oxygen is a little bit flammable. Actually it’s required for fire to happen.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: So this fire burned for depending on exactly, which source you read, and you were from a couple of minutes to almost 15 minutes and the problem with this is you can’t open the windows to get fresh air in when you are in a space station.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: So they ran into problems with the respirators being
broken they were using to try to survive on board. They thought for a while, I remember this when I was in college, they thought for a little while they might have to abandon the space station. So that was a bit of a problem. They were able to pull it out. They were able to survive it. But as I said there were a number of problems from their escape vessel being blocked, to broken respirators, yeah, it was kind of awful.
Fraser: Right. So I’m just going to read a little chunk here. On Mir they have this thing called The Electron which was an oxygen generation system, but it was breaking down all the time so they went to this other, they had these solid pods they could use that could generate with this Viva system that would generate oxygen for the station. So this thing was a little more dangerous because it was pumping this oxygen. And so the official report was the fire burned for about 90 seconds. So Jerry Linenger, this is the guy who wrote this book Dragonfly, he said it went on for about 14 minutes, produced tons of toxic smoke they couldn’t clear, the crew had to put on respirators, but the masks were broken so they were looking around for respirators that worked. Oh and the fire extinguishers that were mounted on the walls couldn’t be moved. Fire is the big danger on these space stations.
Pamela: And this fire was triggered by getting hit with progress. So when you get hit by another space station and you catch on fire, (laugh) it’s a bad day!
Fraser: And that’s the other part, right? There was the docking accidents you mentioned with the progress and with the garbage…..
So, you mentioned as well, Mirs’ orbit was degrading, it was having a harder and harder time boosting its orbit up so it was time, it was getting old and kind of scary….
Pamela: And the Russian economy didn’t exist….
Fraser: Yeah, and the Russian economy, yeah, wasn’t ready to keep it going so there was a plan to maybe buy it out, but there was also a plan to deorbit it.
Do you remember anything about that plan to buy it out?
Pamela: So, there was a variety of different plans. There was a Japanese television station, there was an American television station, there were actually commercials projected on the outside of the space station. And all of these different things appeared in different magazines at different points. But at the end of the day, when each of these organizations looked at not only what is the cost of maintaining Mir, which itself wasn’t that bad, but then ‘getting people to and from’ that was where a lot more of the cost came from. It simply was unfeasible for everybody. The US doesn’t do that sort of,…there’s no way America was going to fly in the space shuttle Japanese television crews up to the former Russian Space Station to do reality TV from orbit. The Soviet-turned-Russian fledgling new baby space agency – how do you trust them to keep going after they periodically abandoned their own humans in space? So, the risk was too high at that point for any commercial agency to take this on basically as an entertainment platform which was what it was being looked at for.
Fraser: Yeah. So the problem with the space station, as we mentioned, it was the largest thing that had ever been orbited. We had seen from Sky Lab these things could easily survive reentry and it was going to crash somewhere.
Pamela: So the nice difference between this vehicle and Space Lab, Sky Lab rather. If Sky Lab was a chunk-o-single-module extremely dense, lots of things capable of surviving reentry. And because it was a single chunk of space craft as it comes through, depending on if they can’t get it tilted just right it can survive longer because it’s not getting as much drag.
Clearly if you have a giant spikey thing, which is pretty much what Mir was, a giant spikey thing, as it comes through the atmosphere, it experiences a great deal more drag. A great deal more drag is going to break it apart at a higher altitude and is going it to burn up a lot more. It also wasn’t as dense on average as Sky Lab was. So it had a lot of things going in its favor, for not potentially destroying a city when it decided to hit the planet. They had more control over it. They spent a great deal of time after they took all of the last crews off. They sent a Progress Craft up, which is one of their…we still use Progresses, we still use more modern ones. They send up a modified Space Capsule that instead of being filled with supplies was being filled with fuel they could use to steer and slow its orbit and have a very controlled reentry. It ended up disintegrating and coming down around the area of Fuji, a nice big empty Pacific Ocean basically.
Fraser: And I remember there were flights you could take to go out into the South Pacific and try to follow the trail of it as it was crashing. As you said, because they had that Progress on board, they had really good control over where they were going to crash it down. And they crashed it in the South Pacific away from everything. But they knew what was going on and what was going to happen which as very different from when we have these space telescopes that have no way of reentering safely, there was a chance it might hit a person. But they knew they could minimize that chance. And I think that’s part of why they deorbited it when they did was because, ‘let’s just wrap this up safely’ as opposed to….
Pamela:…..”let’s not drag it out also. So one of the things at this point both nations were looking at building the international space station. And as they were looking at building that they needed to free up the funding that was going to tracking Mir to making sure that Mir’s orbit was stable, to making sure it didn’t collide violently with various space junk and other things in orbit. So a lot of effort which translates to a lot of salary was going in to maintaining Mir and they needed to free that up to go on to build newer things.
Fraser: Right. So there’s definitely some political stuff going on as well.
Cool! Ok. So this is part two. Next week we’re going to jump into the modern age and we’re going to talk about the international space station and a bit about the Chinese Tiangong Station, and maybe if we’re feeling up for it, we’ll do a fourth part of this trilogy and talk about the future of space stations. So, Cool! Well thank you very much Pamela.
Pamela: My pleasure.
This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity.

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