Tales from the dark side of Earth: Astronaut’s take on fire, free-fall and Mars
Imagine you’re 14 years old, camping in Ontario with your family.
It’s July 20, 1969, and you’re watching on a small TV as Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the moon.
You decide: I want to go to space.
And so you grow up to become an astronaut. You go into space on the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis. You spend five months on the Russian space station Mir.
You ultimately rack up 143 days and 52 minutes in space, over 2,177 orbits of the earth, and you fly 54.5 million miles through space.
And after all that, you come home to Michigan to settle down in Suttons Bay.
That’s just a brief look at what retired Navy Captain and astronaut Jerry Linenger has done.
There are so few humans who’ve experienced what Linenger has. Here’s how he describes what it’s like to be blasted into space:
“I wish I could snap my fingers, get everyone up in space, look down at the planet, get a different perspective ... realize we’re all in it together, and a lot of the problems will just dissolve away.”
Before going up to Mir, Linenger was required to learn Russian and train in Star City, Russia, as a cosmonaut. He launched aboard the shuttle Atlantis in January 1997 to connect with Mir and spent five months aboard the space station.
Linenger told us he’s no stranger to isolation, having served in the Navy aboard aircraft carriers and submarines. But all that time on Mir gave him a whole new appreciation for the concept.
"It's amazing. It's just power like you've never felt before."
“You’re up in space [with] two guys who speak no English, broken communication system, basically could not talk to Earth, only talked to Moscow when we could talk to Earth,” he said.
“So it was isolation, cut off, stuck with myself more than ever in my life. That’s a total removal from mankind, and you better be comfortable with who you are as a person, because you’ll really find out what you’re made out of, what you can withstand and how you can hold up.”
In his book, Off The Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard The Space Station MIR, Linenger writes about the space station itself.
Mir was designed to operate for between three and five years. By the time Linenger showed up, Mir had been going strong for over ten years.
Linenger told us Mir had no way of getting stuff off the station before the shuttle showed up, so by the time he came aboard, some of the station’s modules were little more than “a garbage dump.”
“It’s like … scuba diving through a kelp bed, you’re literally pushing things aside. There’s no way you can use that module.”
He also told us that when he opened the hatch to Mir, “it smelled as if you’re going into grandma’s basement.”
During those five months, the crew experienced what’s described as the most severe fire ever on an orbiting spacecraft.
“Big time flame. Oxygen generator … got sparking, and we had about a three or four foot length blowtorch-like fire with smoke just billowing out,” he said.
It took four fire extinguishers to contain secondary fires before the original fire burned itself out.
“The whole time you’re just saying, you know, I just hope this respirator keeps working, number one. Number two, I hope that blowtorch doesn’t point down, because if it pierces that hull … you’ve got rapid decompression, quick suffocation,” he said.
“You know, your training better kick in, you better have competent crewmates, and you know, I just screamed out, 'We’re going to get that fire out.'”
Linenger told us that the crew survived that fire “by the skin of our teeth,” but space flight is all about planning ahead, and there are experiments being conducted now to try to determine how best to protect astronauts from fires like these in the future.
“Space flight is really a controlled risk business when it fundamentally gets down to it. You look at any risk you can control, and you do your best to minimize that risk.
Linenger is the first American to conduct a space walk from a foreign space station wearing a non-American space suit. He was tasked with installing a 500-pound sensor package out on the end of one of Mir’s modules.
"The one thought I had is how silly we are to think that we can actually name the universe. There are so many stars out there."
When you’re out conducting a space walk, Linenger told us, “you’re just like a mountain climber on the edge of a cliff.”
“You’re responsible for keeping yourself attached. If you become detached with any kind of motion, you know, matter in motion stays in motion. I’d still be up there 100 years from now. 300 years from now, fireball through the sky.”
With that in mind, he securely strapped himself and the sensor package to a telescoping pole, swung out about 15 meters into space, and just floated out there for 45 minutes waiting for the sun to light up the area of the station he’d be working on.
“For that 45 minutes on the dark side of the Earth, I just dangled out there and looked at the heavens, and I’ll tell you, it’s spectacular,” he said. “The one thought I had is how silly we are to think that we can actually name the universe. There are so many stars out there.”
NASA’s space shuttle program and the lunar exploration program Constellation have been canceled, and now U.S. astronauts have to rely on renting space in Russian spacecraft or spacecraft flown by the private sector to get to the International Space Station.
“NASA got very methodical, saying we cannot afford to build the next generation … without phasing out the shuttle program,” he said. The plan was to phase out the shuttle, using the extra funds to supplement the existing budget for the Orion capsule.
Somewhere along the way, he told us, the administration decided to take half of Orion’s budget and give it to private space companies.
“We’re doing the private stuff, it’s great, I’m all for space tourism,” he said, “but they just should not be robbing NASA’s budget.”
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have developed and demonstrated first stage rockets that can be landed and reused. Previously, first stage boosters were simply allowed to crash into the ocean.
This is impressive technology and could be extremely useful here on Earth, but Linenger sees even more potential in using it for a future Mars mission.
The trouble with taking a spacecraft to Mars is that it’s difficult to carry enough fuel from Earth to Mars to facilitate a return trip. Linenger envisions a situation in which astronauts could produce their own fuel on Mars, drastically reducing the amount they’d need to bring from Earth.
“It’s a good technology on Mars because you might be able to bring a vessel down, land it, and then be able to use that vessel using fuel you make on Mars to get yourself back home again,” he said.
These companies are “looking beyond just tomorrow,” Linenger told us. “If we’re going to Mars, we’re going to need that technology. Let’s start working on it today.”
Linenger shares more stories from his career as an astronaut in our conversation above.