Lofty possibilities lift Mir astronaut Discovery: David Wolf's 128 days aboard the space station opened his eyes to what Russians and Americans can accomplish.

March 19, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Patching up a battered space station is not rocket science.

It's drills and wrenches and elbow grease and a certain intuition about machines -- all of which the Russian cosmonauts seem to have in abundance, the American astronaut David Wolf discovered when he got up to the dilapidated Mir.

"I didn't realize how much of a space station could be taken apart from the inside," he said yesterday on his first visit to Moscow since returning to Earth.

Wolf spent 128 days on Mir, joining it in September after what he called "a kind of a run of bad luck" that had brought it punctures, power failures, a collision -- and headlines back on Earth.

It had seemed a star-crossed space station then, 11 years old and out of parts and out of luck. But Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov, who boarded Mir about a month before Wolf, went right to work and got it in good running order. Since then, it's been "fundamentally safe," Wolf said. That's despite a recent crisis involving a missing wrench that threatened to doom the station until it finally turned up -- and not to mention the power failures that still come and go.

The electricity went out three times while Wolf was aboard, but he chose to look on the bright side. All the fans and pumps shut down, and he could enjoy the quiet and the feeling of floating free in space, instead of in the middle of a large, mechanized contraption.

"It's very pure," he said.

Wolf, an enthusiastic 41-year-old physician from Indiana who also holds a degree in electrical engineering, came away from his sojourn on Mir impressed by the possibilities of Russian-American cooperation. He's convinced that the time is ripe to move on to the next phase -- construction of the International Space Station, which is to begin this year.

He came back to Earth on Jan. 31 and, after a period of physical rehabilitation, is in Moscow for a week to debrief Russian space officials and pass on the lessons he's learned to the crew that has been picked for the new space station.

He spoke to several gatherings at the U.S. Embassy yesterday, talking up the opportunities for scientific research in a gravity-free environment. But one way or another the conversation kept getting back to the one thing none of his listeners could ever fully comprehend: what it's like to be up there.

View from up there

Mir passes over volcanoes, forest fires with smoke plumes stretching 5,000 miles, smoggy cities and a Gulf of Mexico turned brown by Mississippi mud. When Wolf went on a space walk, the Milky Way blazed brilliantly above him, while a 600-mile-wide thunderstorm flashed with continuous lightning below him.

"I was thrilled to be there the whole time," he said.

But the isolation and the demands of work take a toll. He watched movies on Mir and felt an intense emotional reaction to them, just because he could see people leading the complex and interconnected lives of the earthbound. He realized, he said, how important it was to be able to keep clean, dress comfortably, take time off.

A sharp image in his mind is of cosmonaut Solovyov reading an old newspaper on a Sunday morning, while a blob of orange juice hovered weightlessly nearby.

The three men generally worked from 9 a.m. to midnight, every day. They also worked their way through a series of misunderstandings, cultural and otherwise. It rankled Wolf the way his commander, Solovyov, wouldn't say thank you when Wolf did a job that was expected of him. Finally, he told Solovyov that Americans are used to this. Undoubtedly there were irritations that went the other way, too.

Learning to get along

His sense is that Russians and Americans "have a ways to go" in learning how to get along. Part of his goal in Moscow this week, he said, "is to make sure we get these things straight and can work well together."

Wolf became an astronaut in 1990. He studied Russian intensively for a year; part of his training involved two days of camping in the Siberian arctic, with the temperature 45 degrees below zero. He said he paced himself and just tried to get through it, 10 minutes at a time.

He went to Mir on the space shuttle, which goes from zero to

18,000 mph in 8 1/2 minutes. "You are really out of town in a hurry."

Mir circles Earth at an altitude of 200 miles. Wolf conducted scientific experiments, including one on tumor growth. In the weightlessness of the space station, he could lift a refrigerator with his little finger, and he lost 12 percent of his bone minerals.


When his return shuttle flight landed, someone opened a hatch and he was almost overwhelmed by the aroma of fresh-cut grass that wafted in. His muscles were sore for two weeks because just rolling over in bed required more exertion than he had needed in 128 days in space.

His balance was off. "If you move your head," he said, "you feel like you're accelerating into the next room."

He worked with physical therapists as if he were recovering from an injury.

"But I was just thrilled with everything on Earth," he said. Driving and looking around reminded him of how much there is to savor. What could be more simple and more pleasurable and more liberating, he asked, than the freedom simply to stop by a convenience store whenever you like and get a cup of coffee?

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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