Mir Woes Drive Effort To Help Crews Cope


If the problems of Mir have caused a stir on earth, consider their impact on the men aboard.

The string of accidents and malfunctions that has beset the aging Russian space station has done more than call the orbiter's future into question. It has also focused attention on how men and women will cope with the stresses and strains of long-duration interplanetary flight.

"People are beginning to realize that on a trip to Mars, one of the potential show-stoppers would be some kind of psychological scenario, and we understand this is a very important issue," says Terry Taddeo, the NASA physician looking after Michael Foale, the American astronaut currently on board Mir.

Russian ground controllers have been trying out ways of making their cosmonauts' lives more livable since the early days of extended space flight aboard Salyut-6, a Mir predecessor, nearly 20 years ago.

Officials are reluctant to discuss past problems, but people familiar with the Soviet space program say that three of the 33 long-duration missions flown so far had to be recalled when crew members began showing signs of extreme stress.

Nor, of course, is this an exclusively Russian issue. An American Skylab crew once simply turned off their space-station radio in a mutinous rejection of ground controllers, who the astronauts thought were insensitive to the pressure they were under.

How to minimize problems has been a pretty hit-and-miss affair over the years, acknowledges Olga Kozerenko, head of the psychological support team at Russian mission control outside Moscow. "Other scientists develop theories, do experiments to test them, and then put the results into practice," she points out. "We do everything at the same time."

Drawing on the experiences of submariners, Arctic explorers, and earlier space pioneers, trainers give cosmonauts and astronauts some basic preflight instruction in the sort of challenges they are likely to face.

Mir crew members learn soon enough what it feels like to spend months stuck on a spaceship the size of six school buses, 113 miles above the earth with only two other people for company.

To soften the impact of all this unpleasantness, the Russians have developed ways of making their cosmonauts feel as close to home as possible. Over the communications channel, when essential technical work is done, they beam up familiar earthly sounds - everything from splashing waterfalls to the clatter of suburban trains. They broadcast news programs and sportscasts, they set up two-way radio links with show-business stars, and most important, they arrange audio and video family hookups.

The big enemy on most long space flights, cosmonauts agree, is monotony. "You have only a certain number of choices in your food ... you know how many paces it is from one module to the next," points out Flynn. "It is the out-of-the-ordinary events that break up the day-to-day grind...."

So NASA sends up laptop computers that have been programmed like a photo album: Each day the astronaut can look forward to a surprise - a family snapshot, a piece of music, a snatch of video - that family and friends had given NASA.

Less welcome surprises, such as the fire that broke out last February, or the crash in June, may be bad for the ship, but are not necessarily so damaging for the crew, psychologists suggest.

"You'd choose a small emergency over a large one if you could," laughs Flynn, but a crisis "does break the monotony, it brings the crew together, it makes them work together much harder and much stronger, and it gives them a common bond...."

Mr. Foale has adapted well to life aboard Mir, according to Dr. Taddeo. But the advent of international space cooperation has brought with it new problems of language, understanding, and teamwork.

On Mir, two Russians fly with one American, and the same will be the case on Alpha, the international space station due to start construction next year. The "odd man out" on such a team "does run the risk of being culturally isolated," Taddeo warns.

Also, American astronauts, accustomed to relatively short Apollo and shuttle space flights "are like sprinters," says Dr. Kozerenko. "A Mir flight is like a marathon, and the American astronauts have not always learned how to husband their psychological resources over the long haul."

Joint training seems to offer the most hope. As Flynn says, "If you get two guys who just cannot work together well, man, there's not much place to go up there."

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