AFTER 106 days in space with two Russian companions, Russian food, and mostly Russian equipment, American astronaut Norman Thagard has a new perspective on the planned international space station. He says one of its biggest challenges will be avoiding cultural isolation.
Dr. Thagard said that he and his crewmates - Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov - got along well and worked together effectively on Russia's Mir space station. Yet he told a space-to-Earth press conference that, at times, he felt somewhat lost in an alien world. He noted, for example, that he sometimes went 72 hours without speaking English and tired of Russian space food - especially Mir's staple of jellied fish.
He said that he knew he could do anything for three months, and he did. But he said he wasn't sure he would have made it if he "had been looking at six months."
For their part, Russian cosmonauts working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and on the space shuttles, have also noted difficulties adapting to the "strange" American culture. Language differences are a challenge to them as well.
Lessons learned in coping with the differences are among the dividends that will be brought back to Earth when the shuttle lands in Florida on July 7.
With a small Russian space probe taking pictures and video from nearby, Atlantis undocked from Mir on July 4 after a five-day linkup. The shuttle then floated around the space station in what Atlantis pilot Robert "Hoot" Gibson called a "cosmic ballet."
The shuttle has now entered a new orbit where the eight-member astronaut-cosmonaut crew will carry out experiments in the Spacelab mounted in the cargo bay. And the new Mir crew is settling in for a two-month duty tour.
The interaction of Dezhurov, Strekalov, and Thagard has provided a unique space flight experience for both countries. Russians are used to having foreigners on board their space stations. Visitors have included a variety of European and Asian nationals. More recently, the European Space Agency has begun a program of scheduled astronaut visits to Mir.
Thagard's visit, on the other hand, is the beginning of a cooperation aimed at eventually melding the two national space-flight programs in a single international space station. It's the difference between providing hospitality for transient guests and preparing to set up permanent housekeeping together.
American and Russian space officials have repeatedly noted that one of their critical challenges in making this space station work is the "people problems" involved. That includes ensuring the mental and physical well-being of the culturally diverse crews that will include Japanese and European astronauts as well as Russian and American personnel.
The shuttle-Mir program is designed, in part, to learn how to deal with this challenge. After the first mission, Thagard, who is a space medicine expert, says "there don't seem to be big problems physiologically."
But space station planners will have to be alert to food and other factors that NASA experts say can contribute to psychological health.
Before it undocked, Atlantis helped improve Mir's living environment. The shuttle transferred about half-a-ton of water to the space station. And it enriched Mir's air by boosting shuttle cabin pressure to set up an air flow that added oxygen and nitrogen to the space station's atmosphere.
Atlantis also brought up special tools to free a jammed solar panel on the new Spektra laboratory module that Russia added to Mir in May. The new Mir crew use the tools to cut away a clamp that failed to release when the solar panel was unfurled. Pictures of the jammed panel taken from Atlantis will help guide their work.
Despite the cultural challenges, Thagard says his Mir duty was a success. His final message to Mir's controllers in Russia was: "Together we can do anything we want to do, including flight to Mars."