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Mir Lessons Learned
June 8, 1998

Any safe return from a dangerous, arduous journey is worth celebrating, and so the end of astronaut Andy Thomas’s expedition aboard Mir deserves exultation. It’s worth recognizing the courage and stamina of all seven Americans who served long space duty tours aboard Mir over the last three

However, more sober observers can be skeptical of a lot of the euphoric pronouncements about how important the Shuttle-Mir experience really is for future projects.

Naturally, NASA officials are eager to glorify their own programs. Yet some of their claims seem to defy common sense and are inconsistent. These look like rationalizations, sort of a refrain of the song “Look on
the Sunny Side of Life” that people in deep trouble sing. Referring to last year’s near-fatal fire and collision, NASA’s Shuttle-Mir program director told United Press International that “all of these need to be experienced because they will probably all happen at least once in the life of the International Space Station.” But this implies that there was no other way to learn these safety lessons except by experiencing them, and since there’s a lot more that can go wrong on the larger, more complex ISS, how are we supposed to avoid even worse surprises?

NASA managers also stress that these difficulties teach them how to solve problems with the Russian control team. But my two decades of experience in Mission Control taught me that such problem solving must be worked out between control teams in simulations and drills before a flight. If you can’t develop such teamwork pre-flight, you have no right certifying it’s safe to proceed with the flight.

Despite the hype over the Mir lessons, NASA has a lot to learn about operating space stations. If they keep insisting on learning it the hard way as they did on Mir, I worry there’ll be more unpleasant and dangerous
surprises on the International Space Station.


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