Despite massive downsizing, budget cuts and an uncertain future, NASA is proving it still has the "right stuff." Yesterday, astronaut-physician Norman Thagard returned to Earth after 115 days in space to the dual triumph of having become NASA's longest-flying space traveler and a key crew member of a mission that saw the first U.S.-Russian space linkup in 20 years.
Dr. Thagard and Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov were launched into orbit in March atop a Soyuz rocket bound for a rendezvous with the Mir space station. They hitched a ride home on NASA's shuttle Atlantis, which took off from Cape Kennedy June 27 and dropped off two Russian cosmonauts to take the place of Dr. Thagard and his companions aboard Mir.
The main purpose of Dr. Thagard's mission was to obtain more scientific information about the long-term effects of space flight on the human body and serve as a dress rehearsal for construction of the international space station set for later this decade.
But in a somewhat unexpected departure from the laconic space-speak of previous astronauts, Dr. Thagard was also refreshingly candid about the psychological stresses long-term
space voyagers endure: mediocre food, a sense of isolation from events on Earth and moments of aching loneliness.
By coincidence, Dr. Thagard's return occurs just as the movie "Apollo 13," a gripping dramatization of NASA's aborted 1970 mission to the Moon, is hitting theaters. The movie's star-studded cast, led by actor Tom Hanks in the role of Apollo 13 commander James Lovell, and its dazzling special effects have serendipitously increased public awareness of the space program.
But it is the film's portrayal of the emotional bonding between the Apollo 13 astronauts and their families that throws the most illuminating light on some of Dr. Thagard's comments while in orbit. He said that one of the most difficult aspects of prolonged space flight was how much he missed his wife and three sons.
The space agency acknowledges that Dr. Thagard's experience has prompted reviews of the problem. "It gave us a lot of insight into how we need to start thinking for a longer-term stay," said NASA mission scientist Tom Sullivan. "I think most of the things he's said are things that we've been generally aware of, but we haven't had as much insight as I think we will now." Attending to the human part of the human space flight program could prove one of NASA's most important challenges in the years ahead.