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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Giant Step for Cosmic Cooperation

Even before the crew left the ground, the comparisons were being made.


It has been almost 20 years since Apollo and Soyuz kissed in the cosmos, linking Russians and Americans 140 miles above the earth for two days of experiments in astronomy and detente.


So when Norman Thagard blasts into space from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Tuesday for a three-month stay aboard the Russian space station Mir, becoming the first American to travel aboard a Russian rocket, he will advance the cooperation spawned by the famous 1975 mission.


And with this trip, the two countries begin some of their most substantive work yet toward a proposed joint space base to be built by 2002.


"This trip is confirmation of the fact that it takes international cooperation to achieve these kinds of goals. This is the only path," said Anatoly Tkachev, director of public relations for the Russian Space Agency. "This is very important for everyone."


As Thagard, 51, slips into the annals of space exploration by riding shotgun in a Soyuz rocket, he will also set an American record for space endurance. The current U.S. record, 84 days, was set in during the Skylab days of the 1970s.


The trip is important for the Americans, whose astronauts typically spend much less time in space than the Russians. In fact, cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, currently aboard Mir, has spent more than 420 days in space. Thagard's three-month stay, and its associated tests of human physiology, will help NASA understand how astronauts perform during the prolonged stays aboard the proposed space lab.


To that end, Thagard has endured a grueling year-long regime of physical conditioning at Star City outside Moscow. But he has on several occasions said that nothing was more difficult than learning the Russian language. According to NASA officials, Thagard, a former Marine pilot, engineer and certified physician, has had to learn the Soyuz rocket and the Mir space station from top to bottom -- in Russian.


Apparently, though, the training has worked. Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strelakov, the cosmonauts traveling with Thagard, will trust him with their lives as they leave Mir for a series of space walks with Thagard inside at the controls.


Which, in itself, means one of the voyage's main goals -- that of getting Russians and Americans comfortable with each other in close quarters for long stays -- has already been accomplished.


"The No. 1 objective of what we're calling Phase I is for us and the Russians to learn to work together in space," joint program deputy director Frank Culbertson said Monday in Moscow.


Two Russian cosmonauts have traveled on American space shuttles -- Sergei Krikalyov, who flew on Discovery in February of 1994, and Vladimir Titov, who was aboard the same shuttle when it maneuvered within 10 meters of Mir last month in preparation for upcoming dockings.


Two more Russians will fly aboard the Atlantis when it travels to Mir. They will remain on Mir as Thagard and his fellow travelers return.


The launch "will be a real thrill for me," Thagard told a press conference Monday at Baikonur on the eve of the mission. "I think the thing that has impressed me most is that the joint nature of this, the cooperative nature of this, has proceeded flawlessly," The Associated Press reported.


The launch is scheduled for shortly after 10 a.m. Moscow time from the space center in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. As the flames spit from the bottom of the Soyuz, there are fond hopes that the astronaut and cosmonauts on board are not the only ones getting a boost.These high-profile flights can do wonders for ailing space programs, and the Russian Space Agency and its American counterpart, NASA, are each fighting for funding from increasingly stingy governments.


"State support has seriously declined. Financing should be regular, dependable and sufficient, and we are extremely unsatisfied," said Anatoly Tkachev, director of public relations for the Russian Space Agency. "We are hoping this will have some influence."


Though Tkachev could not describe just how much state support has fallen, Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for the military space forces, said Russia cut its space budget by 50 percent this year, and the military sector is short of 2.8 trillion rubles ($600 million) for space development, according to Reuters.


NASA, too, is facing budget constraints, and had to sell its cooperation with the Russians as a cost-saving idea. NASA estimates that Russian contributions to the space station project should reduce its cost by $2 billion. The space station as a whole is working under Congressional spending restrictions of $2.1 billion a year.


NASA officials are hoping that success in space will translate into success on Capitol Hill.


"When we're doing spectacular things, people think the space program is wonderful because it inspires them and inspires their children," Culbertson said.