Feature: Excerpt from 'Leaving Earth'


Robert Zimmerman, who covers aerospace for UPI Science News, also is an independent space historian. His most recent book, "Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel," is being awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award on Nov. 16. The award, from the American Astronautical Society, is for the best book of 2003 about space exploration written for the general public.

"Leaving Earth," published by Joseph Henry Press, is a history of manned space exploration since the Apollo lunar landings. It describes the efforts by engineers and astronauts in both the United States and Russia to build the first interplanetary spaceships. Following is the first of two excerpts from the book.



For Sergei Krikalev, the experience was far more alien than spending 10 months in space. Everywhere he went, people smiled at him. When he drove a car down the road, the worker who waved him past a road construction site gave him a smile. When he went into a store to buy food, the cashier grinned at him. Even when he passed a security checkpoint, the guard examined his ID card, then smiled and waved him through.


In Russia, no one smiled -- unless they had good cause. To smile nonchalantly for little reason was considered rude, superficial and a put-on. But Krikalev was in America now, and in America everyone smiled, all the time, for the slightest reason. All his co-workers at NASA seemed to be laughing and grinning incessantly. It made him uncomfortable.

If, just three weeks earlier, someone had suggested to Krikalev that he would spend the next three years in the United States, he would have thought they were crazy. Yet here he was, and here he would stay, surrounded by relentlessly cheerful people, for the next three years.

In 1992, during the Bush-Yeltsin negotiations establishing an astronaut-cosmonaut exchange program, NASA officials had suddenly put the high-level Russian politicians across the table from them in an embarrassing position. According to Krikalev, "the Americans had listed several names of who they wanted to fly on Mir and asked who the Russians intended to send to the shuttle."

No one in the Russian delegation had considered the issue that deeply. Moreover, the negotiators were politicians and diplomats, not members of the Russian space program, and really had no idea who to propose. Frantic not to lose face, they quickly pulled out of thin air the names of two of their best-known cosmonauts: Krikalev, the so-called "last Soviet citizen," and Vladimir Titov, co-holder of the record for the world's longest space flight.


Being picked in this ad-hoc manner caused Krikalev some awkwardness. Not only were he and Titov given no say on whether they wanted to go, the decision had been made without input from anyone at Energia, not even Ryumin, the man who usually made such selections. Later, Ryumin called Krikalev, wondering if he had played political games to get picked. He had not, but Ryumin was still irritated that he had not been involved in the decision. Furthermore, Krikalev and Titov were given only two weeks to get ready. By Nov. 13, 1992, they were in Houston, with their families following one week later.

"Too fast," Krikalev remembered. "Too fast."

While his English was rather limited, his wife Elena, an Energia engineer, spoke none at all. Moreover, they and their three-year-old daughter were first lodged in a suburban apartment, where the typical resident used a car for the simplest of errands. The Russians, however, were used to living in an urban setting in Moscow, where they walked to everything or could take the metro or bus. For the first few months at least, Krikalev's wife spent most of her time at home, isolated and alone.

"We could not go anywhere," Krikalev recalled.


Krikalev often found American life downright jarring. At one point, soon after arriving in Houston, he got on an elevator with another American. As the NASA engineer pressed the button (he was going only one floor), he turned to Krikalev, smiled and said, "How ya doing?"

Krikalev, still struggling with a new language, felt sudden panic.

"How am I going to answer his question fairly," he thought, "in a language I hardly know, in the short one or two minutes before we get to his floor?"

Nonetheless, Krikalev tried, stammering out sincerely how much he liked America, how much he appreciated everything everyone was doing for him. He started to try to describe his apartment. The American watched with a grin. Then the elevator stopped at his floor, and with a hearty, "See ya later," got out, leaving Krikalev alone and in mid-sentence.

"I soon realized that Americans weren't really expecting an answer," Krikalev explained. "In Russia, you only ask a question like that when you really want to know. Otherwise, you are considered rude. In America, however, it is merely a form of superficial greeting."

Krikalev noticed other things, both good and bad. He was amazed at the quantity and quality of food available in any supermarket. He was also appalled at Americans' eagerness to eat in cheap fast-food restaurants.


"In Russia, it is hard to get good ingredients, but when we do, we try to make good food with it. I was astonished how Americans take good ingredients and combine them so badly."

To Krikalev, as well as the many other Russians who came to the United States as part of the joint space program, the most negative aspect of American life was what they considered its almost superficial and shallow friendships. While Russians considered friendship intensely important, and spent years developing trust before they were willing to call someone their friend, Americans could say howdy to each other, drink a beer and consider themselves lifelong buddies.

The happy-go-lucky grins and good-natured and easy friendships seemed to Krikalev irritating, false, and artificial.

"Are they putting on a front?" he asked himself. It also made it hard for the Russians to take Americans seriously, seeing them instead as ever-grinning clowns, to be laughed at.

However, for engineer Krikalev the chance to fly on the American shuttle made all the cultural challenges worthwhile. Here was another kind of space vehicle, the first that was even partly reusable and the first able to come back from orbit and land on a runway.


"I think every pilot who flies on some kind of plane wants to fly on another kind of plane," he explained.

Krikalev adapted well. Training was remarkably similar to how things were done in Russia. It included the same kinds of simulations, the same kinds of technologies (albeit more sophisticated), the same kinds of exercises, and the same kinds of procedures.

Ironically, he found NASA's way of tightly scheduling every second of an astronaut's time far more bureaucratic than anything he had experienced in his own country. In Russia, ground controllers made major scheduling decisions, such as when space walks and Progress (spacecraft) dockings would occur, but left the more detailed day-to-day planning to the cosmonauts themselves. Twenty years of running three-month to six-month missions had taught them, as had Skylab's longest mission taught NASA in the 1970s, that it was unwise to try to plan a spaceman's day too tightly.

American shuttle missions, however, were short, rarely more than two weeks long. With so little time in space, mission controllers maximized efficiency by dictating the actions of every astronaut for every second of every mission. As Krikalev's own American shuttle commander admitted, "You might think that in Russia ... (cosmonauts) are pretty rigidly controlled. Such is not the case. They have a lot more freedom than we do in deciding what goes on."


Finally, after 15 months of hard training, Krikalev joined five Americans for an eight-day mission. On Feb. 3, 1994, the space shuttle Discovery blasted off, its mission to release three different satellite packages: a small, experimental science satellite built by the University of Bremen in Germany, a recapturable test factory for manufacturing thin and very uniform films in weightlessness, and a cluster of six small spheres, ranging from two to six inches in diameter, so that ground radar stations could test and calibrate their equipment.

As one of two mission specialists in charge of using the shuttle's robot arm, Krikalev's main technical assignments were to release the German satellite and recapture the test factory. Unfortunately, he was not able to do the second task. Technical problems prevented his crewmate Jan Davis from releasing the factory in the first place.

As usual, he was also expected to participate in several political public-relations gestures. On the mission's sixth day the American television show "Good Morning America" put together a link between the ground, the shuttle and Mir, so that the two crews could talk to each other and to the ground. Krikalev made contact.

"I hear you loud and clear," he said in Russian. "Can you hear me?" As he spoke, a "Good Morning America" interpreter translated his words into English.


On Mir, the three Russians broke into laughter on hearing the English translation. Afanasyev opened his microphone. "Sergei," he asked innocently in Russian, "Why are you speaking English to us? Have you forgotten Russian?"

The next day, Krikalev and the shuttle got a telephone call from Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. At one point, the Prime Minister also joked how the day before he had heard Krikalev speaking only English to the Russian cosmonauts on Mir, and was wondering if he had "forgotten" his native language.

Krikalev, ever cautious when speaking with or about politicians, carefully corrected the Russian Prime Minister, explaining that it was the English interpreter Chernomyrdin had heard. He then added that the Americans on Discovery were even learning a few Russian words.

"In fact, they can pronounce many words without an accent," he explained with a straight face.


Copyright 2003, Joseph Henry Press. Excerpted with permission. E-mail

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