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From Mir to Mars
Mir animation What Is It Like to Live Aboard Mir?

In the first of a series of letters home during his trip to Mir, NASA astronaut Andy Thomas wrote that life on the space station "can certainly be called unusual, if not bizarre. Perhaps it even defies adequate description."

Dr. Thomas is the seventh and last U.S. astronaut scheduled to live aboard the Russian Space Station Mir as part of the first phase of the International Space Station program. One of the reasons NASA is sending astronauts to Mir is to learn more about what it's like to live so far away from home, in a very different environment, for an extended period of time.

Although past experiments have shown the effects of living in an isolated location on Earth, like Antarctica, life in space is very different. How will prolonged weightlessness affect the human body? Can people from different countries -- different cultures -- get along together in a relatively small space? What kind of psychological affect might life in space have? Through the experiences of the seven NASA astronauts who have lived aboard Mir, we can begin to answer those questions.

The earliest components of Mir were launched in 1986, and it has been orbiting Earth ever since. In one interview from the space station, NASA astronaut John Blaha said he was surprised by the environment when he arrived. "There was a lot empty space. It may be five times the volume of empty space we have in the shuttle, so I was surprised by that. The environment is actually very good. The air is very healthy -- it's not dry, it's not humid. Nothing smells. Two of the modules are very new inside. The other four modules look a bit used, as you could imagine something looking after people have lived in it in orbit for 10 to 11 years without having the advantage of bringing the vehicle home and letting it be cleaned up on the ground."

The Pursuit of Science

Because Mir is the site of scientific study, much of its residents' time is spent working. American astronauts perform most of the scientific experiment operations, while the Russian cosmonauts are primarily occupied with station upkeep and maintenance procedures.

After he had been aboard Mir for about a month, astronaut John Blaha described his schedule during an interview: "Well, I've been very busy. Typical day: get up at 7 a.m., start working at 8, and stop around 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., and maybe get to bed by 1 or 2 a.m. And then in the middle of that day, about an hour to an hour and half, twice a day, of physical exercise -- once on the treadmill, and once on the bicycle, and in between using expanders to work with the muscles. When I'm not eating or doing those types of things, we're conducting an awful lot of experiments -- human physiology experiments, life science and microbiology, and materials science experiments -- quite a number of them."

Astronaut Shannon Lucid, whose stay on Mir gave her the world record for longest stay in space by a woman, also talked about working aboard Mir during a press conference when she returned to Earth. "I think going to work on a daily basis on Mir is very similar to going to work on a daily basis on an outstation in Antarctica," she said. "The big difference with going to work here is the isolation, because you really are isolated. You don't have a lot of support from the ground. You really are on your own."

Keeping Fit

One of the studies being conducted through stays on Mir is the affect of prolonged weightlessness on the human body. Mir residents must exercise in order to keep in shape for their return to Earth's gravity.

"I do an exercise regime here daily that the Russians have been doing on this space station now for 11 years," said Astronaut John Blaha in an interview from Mir during his four-month stay. "We have a treadmill here [in the base block] and a treadmill in the Kristall module. You set a particular load on there and run for a certain period at different paces -- you walk, you run. In between you use expanders for different muscle groups in your legs, neck, arms, shoulders, and waist. That's one exercise, and it takes about an hour to accomplish."

Blaha said the crew would also ride a stationary bicycle for about 45 minutes at a time, for cardiovascular exercise.

Preparing for New Arrivals

When a visiting ship is on its way to Mir from Earth, the crew's tight schedule must be altered accordingly. John Blaha described the preparations for the arrival of a Progress resupply vessel in one of his letters home:

"Two days before the launch we started loading up the old Progress docked to the Kvant Module. We put all our dirty clothes, trash, equipment nobody wanted, 600 liters of urine, many containers of solid waste, etc. into the cargo bay.

"We started sleep shifting two days before the launch, because we planned to undock the old Progress at 2 a.m. and dock the new Progress approximately 26 hours later," Blaha wrote. "We, of course, waited until we knew the new Progress launch was successful and the space ship was going to have a good chance of docking with us before the old Progress was undocked."

Twenty-four hours after undocking the old Progress vessel, Blaha watched through a window as the new Progress approached Mir.

"It was a shining star rising towards us at great speed from beneath the horizon. This was an incredible sight. There we were approaching the terminator on planet Earth, and this 'beaming' shining star was roaring towards us."

When Progress finally docked with Mir and the hatch could be opened, the crew was scheduled to go to bed a half-hour later. "Of course, we stayed up a few extra minutes as we searched for our crew packages," Blaha wrote. "Once we found our packages, it was like Christmas and your birthday all rolled together when you were five years old. We really had a lot of fun reading mail, laughing, opening presents, eating fresh tomatoes, cheese, etc. It was an experience I will always remember."

Touches of Home

Mir residents have said they don't usually feel lonely, because they're able to stay in contact with friends and family on Earth. John Blaha said he received World Series updates from ham radio operators all over the world while he was on Mir. Shannon Lucid received frequent messages from her family -- including one from her children telling her that her husband had put bleach in the washing machine and ruined their clothes.

Despite the long hours of work, holidays don't go unnoticed aboard Mir. The Mir 22 crew -- Astronaut John Blaha and Cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Alexander (Sasha) Kalery -- celebrated Christmas during their stay. Christmas dinner included both Russian and American foods -- "traditional cakes and other dishes, lamb, pork and a wonderful dessert, as well as Italian food -- macaroni and cheese, and other things," according to Korzun.

Benefits of Space Life

What do Mir residents enjoy that they don't have on Earth?

"In a very practical manner, I would get up in the morning and wash my face and I was ready to go for the day," said Shannon Lucid after she returned to Earth. "It didn't take a lot of getting ready, like when I'm here. I have to think about what I'm going to wear and all the stuff you have to do in the morning. Then I have to get in the car and drive to work. There I got up and I was at work. To go into another module took less than half a second, so there was no big commute.

"When I finished work in the evening, I didn't have to worry about laundry, I didn't have to worry about going to the store to get groceries," Lucid continued. "A friend called me up last night and said, 'I was just thinking about your six months up there in Mir. You didn't have to pay a single bill, did you?' And I said, 'No, that's right.' "

Looking out the window also takes on a whole new meaning in space. "From a human viewpoint, the incredible view of our planet, where our planet is in the universe, and the fact that our planet is one of the most beautiful places in the universe -- that's one thing that you just can't get on the Earth, even looking at IMAX movies," said John Blaha. "From a scientific viewpoint, when you see crystals growing here in microgravity, it's just incredible. I think it's a shame we can't beam up lots of smart people who understand physics, chemistry, fluid dynamics so they can rapidly expand their knowledge of those particular physical and chemical processes. When you're here, you can see it, and seeing the detail of it is incredible and you can't see it on the planet."

It's a Nice Place to Visit...

With all the benefits of living in space, do NASA astronauts ever long for the comforts of home? With about a month left before he would return to Earth, John Blaha said he was surprised how fast his time aboard Mir had gone. "I'm worried about that because I really enjoy it here. I enjoy the work and I enjoy watching and learning how to work on a space station from these two great cosmonauts."

Blaha said he wished he could "beam up" his family so they could share his view of Earth. "The one thing I wish I had is my wife Brenda. I miss her. I miss talking with her and seeing her. Of course pictures help a little bit, and every once in awhile I have conversations with her and that's very good. That's the Number One thing I miss here on the Mir space station. Other than that I don't miss a thing. I wish she were here with me. If she were here with me I'd stay here for four or five years."