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DRAGONFLY
NASA AND THE CRISIS ABOARD MIR

Bryan Burrough (1998, Harper Collins)

Describes the American astronaut experience while serving on Mir, as well as the mindsets of the two agencies with regards to the program.

 

 

3 stars

Read March 5th to 21st, 2001  
    Terrifically written, so that it had me caught from the first page. However, all the tangents along the way, combined with a focus on the tragic missions and almost no coverage of the quieter moments got tiring after a while.

The subtitle to this book is "NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir", but it could also be called "Everything you Didn't Want to Know about NASA". The author digs deep, and finds an agency filled with patronage, carelessness, and people unwilling to stretch themselves or go the extra mileage to help out an emerging program.

The author does it, however, in such an intense and exciting manner that I couldn't help but enjoy this book. It takes nearly half the book to get through one mission, because on the way, we meet all the characters involved, and everybody who has (ever?) met these people, and some of the people who met those people... But it never got distracting. It felt like an exciting stroll down a lovely path. For a few steps, we move forward towards our goal, then we stop to admire something in the woods. A few minutes later, we continue. And so on. But while that was fun for the first few hundred pages, it became tiring later on. I had to take a break from the book for several days, because I was not really reading it, just passing over events. And that's too bad.

The author obviously decided to focus on the problematic aspects of the missions to Mir, and basically ignore the rest. He goes into exquisite detail (without ever going too far) about the lack of planning and training the crews had. Every single astronaut felt neglected, and according to what I read here, they had every right to feel that way. And every astronaut reacted differently. 

The Phase One office (the astronaut-Mir program, which precedes Phase Two, the International Space Station) rarely felt anything was out of the ordinary, even when things started to go wrong. They quietly asked for permission to get details of Mir and training procedures and mission plans. They were flatly refused, so they went back to their desks and never thought about it again. At least until the Fire. Then they asked for better safety controls. They were brushed off, with the typical Russian condescension. So they went back to their desks. I don't know what they were doing there. Through what is called the Near Miss of a transport to the crash of the transport a month later, and the internal spacewalks, every time they started to dig for more information, they were brushed off by the Russians, and they never really pushed back.  The rest of NASA refused to help out, convinced with their heads in the sand that this was a completely different entity, and they didn't want to get involved.

The Russians, for their part, were still in Soviet Mode. Everything was quietly dealt with. Everything was need-to-know, and even then it wasn't need-to-know-much. Everything was prestige. When something went wrong, and the Americans asked questions, they got to feel superior, saying that the Americans worry too much. Russians have been doing this for a long time, they said. Trust us. And every time something went right, they would flaunt it. 

The astronauts seem to have been left on their own, for the most part. However, life could have been made easier for them. Mike Foale had the right idea when he decided to immerse himself in the Russian culture. Because the Russians are very, very different from North Americans. I had a hard time relating to them, and I'm sure the astronauts did, too. But Jerry Linenger thought they should all turn into Americans while he was staying with them, especially on Mir. Thagard and Blaha felt similarly, though they blamed NASA for alienating them more than the Russians. Shannon Lucid was very quiet, seemed to enjoy herself, but it's hard to tell. As for the last two members of the Mir astronaut corps, it is hard to say. They only received about ten pages out of 600 for their combined 8 months in orbit.

And therein lies the main problem with this book. Maybe there wasn't enough to talk about with the missions that didn't go horribly wrong. The whole program was political to begin with, and all of NASA wanted nothing whatsoever to do with it. During the quiet moments, the author catches on "the only problem that happened during this stay was..." instead of giving us more of the crew interaction, and describing what went on during those missions. Stories about the Apollo missions tell us that even a successful mission can be exciting.  See A Man on the Moon, for example.

Details abound, however, for Linenger's and Foale's missions. The description of the fire on Mir is so intense that it's nearly impossible to put down, and main parts should be reread to get a better perspective after the excitement has died away. Also intense is the Near Miss, where during a docking test that was anything but routine, the supply ship nearly crashed into the space station. Strangely enough, by the time the author describes the actual crash, during Foale's mission, the energy had more-or-less fizzled out. The internal spacewalks were interesting, but anti-climactic, especially when every single little detail is pursued, from a faulty depressurization to a leaking glove, which take nearly five pages to describe. 

Many of the astronauts were angry by the end of their missions, and became even more angered when the trips to Mir continued, even after they had voiced their strong disapproval. Unfortunately, when the dissenters were part of the ground team, they sounded more like they were trying to cover themselves, citing the people who never spoke out before Challenger's fatal flight in 1986. But their cries fell on ears that were completely deaf, anyway, so it didn't really matter.

What was most disturbing about the revelations in this book was the giant monster machine NASA has become. At least according to this book. Early passages describe George Abbey as the man behind the astronaut corps, who almost controls it in a Soviet manner. He somehow manages to place the responsibility on other people's shoulders, while pulling the strings from behind, so that they follow his will, and ultimately take the blame when people are displeased. And if anybody speaks out against him, they can be sure that they won't be flying in space again, anytime soon. 

There is so much information packed into this book that it would be an incredible reference, even without the intense story. But given the stuff that happened on Mir, which undoubtedly would have been secretly hushed away if there had not been any Americans on board, it becomes a riveting story. The author is an incredible writer, so that for the first half of the book, I didn't mind even once going off on those interesting tangents to meet other people and events. 

The layout of the book was also well-chosen. He starts with Linenger's flight, which had the most difficulty and conflict, even though it wasn't the most life-threatening. Then he goes back to the beginning of the program, which we can see is intensely political (the science was justified later), and returns for Foale's flight afterwards. The last two missions, uneventful, are described in an epilog.

Although this book dealt with the space program, it really struck a chord in me how different the Russian culture is from ours here in North America. Strength is what they respect. Anybody who is not a shouting, pushing, hard drinking man will be run over by them. This is the way it has been for hundreds (thousands?) of years, and it will take a long time to change them. The astronauts who thought they could change these people were naive in that belief. The managers at NASA were aghast at what they saw, especially in the way blame was placed and shifted, depending on who was talking. Cosmonauts blamed everybody except themselves. The ground control team and contractors blamed the cosmonauts. And nobody would relent. 

It seems that what we read about in the newspapers about the events on Mir was way overblown, as usual.  There was considerable danger, but the station was not as poorly off as we were lead to believe at the time.  But even NASA didn't know how bad it was.

The book was extremely well written. I would definitely consider reading anything else by this author. He seems like he could make the most mundane things seem exciting. Unfortunately, that was never really tested, because he only dealt with the exciting issues, and rarely the day-to-day stuff.

As a footnote, the Mir space station was deorbited on March 23rd, 2001, very early in the morning.  I think this was good timing on my part, and a fitting end to that giant space station.
 
   

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