Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
A recent issue of Wired magazine devoted to space exploration made me consider what a long space voyage would be like. I'd heard of a book about the Mir space station, the only book I knew of about real-life extended time in space, so this month I read the currently out-of-print Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough.
Dragonfly is about the five Americans and six Russians who, in bi-national teams of three, lived on the aging Russian space station Mir between 1996 and 1998. It focuses on the team that endured the most dangerous space accidents of the joint Russian-American program. These accidents included an onboard fire, a collision with a cargo shuttle, a "decompression" caused by a hole poked in the hull by the cargo ship, and the loss of all power on board.
Over his seven months on Mir, Vasily Tsibliyev, the Russian commander, fell apart--not in a psychotic way but in the way of someone in over his head. By the end of his tour he had a heart arrhythmia and was taking tranquilizers. The facts suggest to me that he was probably mildly poisoned by the seriously deteriorated air quality.
Aleksandr Lazutkin, the Russian engineer, was a good-natured rookie overwhelmed by the repair demands of Mir. The first American with this team, Jerry Linenger, on board during the fire, was a Navy M.D. who made no friends on Mir. The second American, Mike Foale, on board during the collision, decompression, and power loss, was both competent and easy-going. He had become fluent in Russian and was successful in his effort to bond and relate to the Russian cosmonauts.
Dragonfly is filled with intriguing details. Against all common sense and toxicology, there is carpeting on Mir. Cosmonauts, who enjoy cans of jellied beef tongue as a special treat, sometimes smoke cigarettes on Mir! A NASA psychologist (!) supplied Mir with survival-themed films such as Alien (!); the Russians, more wisely, furnished Mir with soft-core porn. Nevertheless, the beleaguered Russian commander loved Mike Foale's choice of Apollo 13, with Foale's running translation. "We felt that, especially from a psychological point of view," Tsibliyev said, "their situation was much worse than ours."
Strangely, among its many other pathologies, NASA did not view simple endurance on Mir (as opposed to poorly-thought-out science experiments) as a good use of time and resources, despite mankind's minimal experience with extended space travel.
I ask readers: What other books describe real-life experience with extended space travel? What do we know about human physical capabilities in space, and how do we know it? What books are available about real-life experience in similar psychological situations such as submarines and Antarctica research stations? Please email any comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro