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Shuttle-Mir's Lessons for the International Space Station
James Oberg, Contributing Editor, SPECTRUM magazine
June 1998, pp. 28-37

NASA's groundbreaking and controversial partnership in the Mir program is winding down. For more than two years, a stream of U.S. astronauts has been sent aloft, one after the other, to join the crew aboard the Russian space station. Now the space partners and a dozen associated nations are collaborating on a yet more ambitious joint space project: the International Space Station, due for its first element launch later this year, a Russian-built cargo block.

Mir has witnessed nine dockings of U.S. space shuttles and long tours of duty by seven U.S. astronauts. (It began operations in 1986 and has lasted more than twice its expected five-year lifetime.)Meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. engineers have spent many months working side by side with Russians, in both Moscow and Houston.

Since the Shuttle-Mir program began, NASA has always presented it as crucial to the success of the forthcoming International Space Station (ISS). Even the terminology used is designed to connect the two: Shuttle-Mir is labeled Phase 1 (Alpha, to the Russians), while the new station's initial construction sequence is referred to as Phase 2 of the ISS program.

Those who have been on Mir are convinced their experience is essential to the ISS program. "I can't imagine proceeding into the Space Station assembly without knowing what we've found out on these flights," NASA Mir veteran Mike Foale told a news conference last fall.

"Mir is like having a crystal ball to look at the 'would have been' future of the ISS." NASA Mir veteran David Wolf told IEEE Spectrum. "By seeing exactly what systems, and precisely which components within them fail, we can specifically target design improvements and prevent similar failures on ISS."

Wolf continues: "We can also learn the actual system lifespans and reduce unecessary maintenance work.In each case

[p. 30] this translates to enhanced productivity.In this way the "failures" on Mir have a beneficial feature beyond purely the experience of doing the repair work. We are essentially obtaining the benefit of over a decade of flight testing."

"The prime reason for doing Phase 1 is to learn how to do long-duration space operations," NASA Shuttle-Mir program director Frank Culbertson said to IEEE Spectrum. "I believe...we have proven that the things we are learning have direct applicability to operating in space, to operating on a station, to learning how to operate with an international partner."

Valeriy Ryumin, the former cosmonaut who was in charge of the Russian side of the Shuttle-Mir program, agrees. "Mir is an excellent laboratory for Alpha [Phase 1], particularly now, when the systems have exceeded their usual service lives," he told NASA in September 1997 briefing. "Nowhere else [c]ould we ... experiment in such real-life circumstances. The experience we will gain together is invaluable."

Others are not as sure. NASA's pioneering spacecraft designer Max Faget, who holds the patents on spacecraft from Mercury to the Space Shuttle, told Spectrum that he wasn't surprised by any of the publicly listed "lessons" of the program ("We knew enough not to run cables through pressure hatches back when I was in a submarine in World War II," he added).

Apollo astronaut Walter Cunningham who helped develop Skylab, NASA's first space station, told Spectrum: "I believe we have learned very little that is not self-evident or could not have been found out immediately" once ISS begins. He grants that there may have been a few lessons in logistics management, but considers them "precious little return for the financial and human resources the United States has invested."

Critics also point out that the Shuttle-Mir was not intended as a testing ground for ISS. As late as 1992, NASA officials were not clamoring for a chance to try out space station plans on Mir. To the contrary, official NASA studies made at the behest of Congress explicitly minimized the value to the United States of any joint work on Mir. Then a shift in world politics endeared joint space projects to the U.S. and Russian governments, to mark the fundamental realignment of the post-Soviet era. Once the program was found diplomatically desirable, space experts tried to justify it by finding uses for it.

The proof is in the pudding, however. If Shuttle-Mir has been a valuable learning experience, as officials assert, then outside observers should be able to assess what lessons were learned from it and how they are being (or have been) applied to ISS. Mastering the lessons-learned process-choosing the right lessons and how best to learn from them-is a challenge in many industries, whether the culture gap is international, inter-agency, or intra-corporate. NASA's experience with the process has been intense, arguably productive, and well worth closer investigation.

The lesson plan

Many types of lessons are learned in life, and by nearly as many kinds of learning processes. Some lessons are learned from one's own encounters with the world and applied to one's own future actions (experience). Others stem from observing other people's actions and their consequences (witnessing). Last are the lessons a person learns from someone else sharing experiences and offering advice (teaching).

In addition, these lessons are applied with varying degrees of skill. First, planned functions are done more efficiently. Later, one learns to avoid subtle problems that could impede a task or even make it even impossible. Lastly, one avoids situations that present an outright threat to health and survival. All of these types of experiences occur to everyone, and they have occurred during Shuttle-Mir.

NASA clearly has learned lessons in several areas. The agency has discovered a lot about dealing with international partners in general and the Russians in particular. It has also learned a lot about planning and conducting long-term manned space operations, whether or not the Russians are involved. And its familiarity with the operational features of dealing with large space structures -- docking, attitude control, thermal control, and so on -- was altogether lacking before the Shuttle-Mir missions.

That said, the failure to learn any given lesson during the Shuttle-Mir missions must also be reckoned with. An analysis is needed to determine the cost of learning the lesson later, during actual ISS construction and operation.

Lastly, the savings to the ISS program, in money, time, and danger, must also be estimated, for comparison with what the Shuttle-Mir program cost. Only then can a reliable judgment be made as to its worth in terms of the lessons learned. (Even so, Shuttle-Mir's diplomatic value in integrating the Russian aerospace industry into Western projects remains significant, although not a part of this analysis of the lessons learned from the venture.)

Two near-tragic misadventures aboard Mir vividly illustrate what was wrong with the old process of learning from experience and what about it had to be fixed. An on-board fire and a collision between an unmanned cargo vessel and Mir last year nearly killed all aboard the spacecraft, including a U.S. astronaut. How were the space planners in both countries caught by surprise?

History's intro classes

Fire turned up as a topic early on. In a small meeting room at NASA's Johnson Space Center, about a dozen years ago, French cosmonaut Jean-Loup Chretien was sharing his experiences aboard a Russian space station. He showed a series of slides taken on his mission, and discussed what he saw as the significance of the equipment and the procedures.

One slide showed a television monitor that looked like a purchase from a discount electronics store, right down to the holder on the back for the power cord. The monitor's case had nothing high tech or sophisticated about it, so much so that one astronaut asked Chretien why the Russians had not even used a fireproof housing.

"They don't see any need for such precautions," Chretien answered matter-of-factly. "After all, they've had several fires aboard their space stations and found...they're easy to put out, they're no big deal." The audience's jaws dropped, but since Chretien was reporting the result of years of space experience, one lesson to be learned from Russian space stations was that Americans seemingly were overly terrified of fire inside the space vehicle.

But a decade later, on 23 February 1997, the crew of six aboard Mir faced a ferocious fire that defied conventional wisdom. The four Russians, one German, and one U.S. spacemen were confronted with extremely unpleasant surprises, and had to fight for their lives.

As a faulty oxygen generator caught fire, recalled Jerry Linenger, "molten metal and sparks exited from the flame." The passageway to one landing craft was blocked by the meter-long torch, which reminded Linenger of a sizzling flame from the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, too painfully bright to look at directly.

"This was an impressive, life-threatening fire in a closed environment," Linenger wrote in his first report. One particular nasty surprise was the "rapidity and uniform spreading of the smoke...far beyond what I would have expected." Later he elaborated: the smoke spread "...a magnitude faster than I would expect a fire to spread on a space station. The smoke was immediate; it was dense. It was very surprising how fast the smoke spread throughout the complex."

Although at first there were some official attempts to downplay the incident ("Small Fire Put Out" was the title of one NASA press release), Linenger's view was different. "Though a severe fire," he wrote only days after the event, "it was in many ways a best case scenario." The flame had been directed away from, not onto, the station's fragile hull, and the normally cluttered passageway had been cleared out only days before. It

[31] could have been very much worse.

It turned out that the extinguishers in some of the Mir's modules were still fastened to the walls with bolted restraints designed to withstand launching forces. The bolts should have been removed once the modules were linked to the Mir's main section, but the Russians had been so complacent about the danger of fire that somehow neither the cosmonauts nor the experts in Mission Control ever got around to it. Fortunately, at the time of the fire, the tool kits for removing the bolts were quickly found and the extinguishers were made available to the crewmen with only a few moments' delay.

The NASA post-fire spin was that the space program was lucky it had happened. "One of the things we found out because of Mir is that we did not have the proper fire protection on ISS," NASA chief Daniel Goldin told numerous public gatherings in subsequent months. "Now what would have happened if we didn't go up to Mir?" he asked, conjuring up an image of a space station crew killed in a fire preventable only by safety measures learned from lengthy American stays on Mir.

But in a more realistic view, the level of surprise to Linenger and the rest of NASA was evidence not of the health of the hazard assessment program but of a weakness in learning the right lesson. Outside experts had known that over the previous quarter century, cosmonauts had fought several fires aboard Russian space stations, but had chosen to disregard their implications. Worse, when the U.S. crew members joined them on Mir, the Russians chose to withhold this information from their new partners: official Russian safety documents submitted for NASA review denied that any fires had occurred aboard Russian manned space vehicles.

Yet cosmonaut Vladimir Kovalyonok, in a 1991 interview with Dutch journalist Bert Vis, described a near-catastrophe aboard Salyut-6 on 4 September 1978: "There was a short circuit and there was...plenty of smoke and fire. We were ready to abandon the station. There were plenty of toxic gases in the air [and] a lot of smoke and it was affecting our eyes. We used gas masks to continue our work."

Georgiy Grechko, a civilian engineer, was enveloped in smoke on board another Soviet space station. "When I turned for something, I couldn't see the other end of the station-it was in smoke, all in smoke."He managed to turn off a burning electrical device and put out the fire.

An oxygen generator of the type behind the February 1997 fire had spit smoke and flame during an earlier incident aboard Mir in late 1994. Jerry Linenger told Spectrum that he had never been briefed about any of the earlier fires aboard Russian stations, although "After the fire, when I got back, I heard a lot from other guys". So the shock to the Americans in 1997 was all the greater.

What the Russians had learned from the previous fires was that fire in space need not be a source of concern, and even ordinary precautions like accessible fire extinguishers were not worth taking. But once a U.S. spaceman on Mir witnessed a serious fire, everyone's attention focused on the issue.

School of hard knocks

Four months later, Linenger's successor aboard Mir, Michael Foale, faced sudden space death of a different kind. A remotely controlled docking procedure for unmanned cargo vehicles was being tested when the approaching spacecraft went out of control and smashed into one of Mir's modules. As it was moving at about 3 meters per second, the hull of the module hit -- the Spektr -- was breached, and air began leaking out.

Foale later recalled that those on board Mir knew there was an air leak -- air pressure alarms were going off, ears were popping, and everyone could hear a hissing noise -- the question was where. The station's equipment made too much noise for the cosmonauts to localize the source of the hiss. Logic dictated that the leak was in the station's main module, which lay in the path of the approaching cargo vessel. But at the exact moment of impact, one of the Russians had glanced out a porthole and had seen the vehicle pass the main module, heading for a lateral module.

Without this chance knowledge, Foale told a NASA debriefing later, the crew would not have known which hatches to close and would have had to abandon the station within minutes. As it was, the crew raced to that module's hatchway, disconnected the wires and the air vents running through it, and blocked it with an emergency pressure cover.

At first, top Russian space officials laid all the blame on the cosmonauts. But it soon turned out that the crew had been attempting a maneuver that was almost certainly doomed to failure. The test plan had been inadequately reviewed, and the crew's training had been skimpy, unrealistic, and many months

[32] old by the time they actually had to carry out the maneuver. A previous test a few months earlier had barely avoided a collision.

When ground simulators were configured for the true situation, including high-fidelity background lighting, the Russians discovered that five of their most experienced rendezvous pilots all crashed when they tried to perform the approach. "The ground controllers made a fundamental error by forgetting about safety during preparations for the docking," a senior expert in cosmonaut training, Rostislav Bogdashevskiy, told a journalist. Russian economics minister Yakov Urinson agreed that "human error on the part of crews and mission controllers, and poor recommendations of designers" were all culpable.

Energiya Corp., which builds and operates Russian manned spacecraft, reluctantly reached the same conclusion. In a memo to NASA, Energiya deputy director, Valeriy Ryumin wrote: "One can debate the way this experiment was conducted, and one can criticize the underlying ideology and what seems to be unjustified risk." But he defended the acceptance of simulations and reviews as a basis for the decision to attempt the maneuver in space. "Now we understand that apparently this was insufficient, and that additional constraints should have been introduced that would have at least guaranteed safety," he concluded.

Publicly, Ryumin's U.S. counterpart Frank Culbertson was supportive of his colleague. Combining "the strength of the Russian system and methodology with NASA's" might "result in a capability exceeding that of either individually," he pointed out at a NASA press conference. "Specifically, the introduction of U.S. experiment planning and trajectory modeling personnel into the Russian process can ... improve the product of the Russian flight control team."

In an interview with Spectrum, Culbertson was more direct: "The Russians tend to sneer at NASA's endless review meetings," he said, "but in this case their own reviews were clearly inadequate." Had they followed the NASA procedure, Culbertson was sure they never would have approved the test in the first place. "And I think they have come to realize that," he added.

At the time, other NASA spokesmen described the valuable lesson learned on these terms: cosmonauts should be able to quickly and easily clear cables from hatchways should a leak require hatches be closed. Meanwhile, no one seemed to grasp (or at least acknowledge) the real lesson: closing a hatch is useless if you cannot determine on which side of it you should be.

In hindsight, the nonchalance of the Russians before the two 1997 crises is incomprehensible and indefensible. Just as hard to take is the U.S. protestation that such crises were good news. "I learned far more in recovering from those things than if I had just had a steady constant program to execute," Mir veteran Michael Foale told a press conference after his flight. And White House science advisor John Gibbons, in the middle of the sequence of accidents, told reporters: "My guess is that if everything had gone [as] we hoped, ...we'd [have] come out on the short end of the stick in terms of relevant experience. ... Each one of these mishaps has been absolutely invaluable in teaching us lessons that will come in very handy when we do further work in space like the space station."

With that sort of thinking, perhaps the real lesson of the 1997 Mir mishaps is far more ominous. Reliance on Mir accidents as pointers to safer ISS operations may be a formula for disasters yet to come. The most disquieting feature of most Mir problems last year was that they kept taking both countries' space experts by surprise, when in hindsight they should not have been. NASA safety panels had Russian input when they certified before Jerry Linenger and Michael Foale's tours of duty that nothing was likely to endanger them or threaten their missions. Yet internal NASA memoranda from concerned engineers warned of the unappreciated dangers of fire as well as depressurization following an accidental collision. The Russians, with 20 years of space station living behind them, also overlooked these risks, demonstrating that their own process of deducing the correct lessons was flawed.

NASA's reaction the 1997 accidents has mainly focused on how to prevent a recurrence. "They've firmly locked the doors behind all of the stolen horses," one former NASA safety official remarked. He meant that the two accidents are only a small subset of all potential accidents, so that it is wrong to believe that preventing their recurrence insures ISS against all other possible misadventures. Viewed from this angle, a fixation on the recent Mir history and what has been learned from it may unhelpfully divert attention from a much wider-ranging hazard assessment.

The concern is well founded. In August 1997, astronaut Wendy Lawrence, then still a candidate for a lengthy Mir mission, explained to a television reporter why she was not worried by the string of space calamities. "I figure that everything that can go wrong has already gone wrong," she said. Her off-the-cuff remark suggests a subconscious feeling that if something has not gone wrong on Mir, it probably is not worth worrying about on ISS. And this could be the road to more disasters.

The value of experience

Some of the news in the Shuttle-Mir lessons-learned process is certainly good. Many of the publicized claims are accurate and the lessons are valuable.

Mir's leaking coolant loop is an excellent example of how recent on-board experience has uncovered unsuspected design problems in the Service Module being built by the Russians for ISS. Mir's thermal control system uses piping built into the structure of the station, often along inaccessible portions of the inner hull. Over the past two years the lines began leaking, often spraying large amounts of noxious ethylene glycol into the cabin atmosphere. Further, critical equipment hooked to inoperable coolant loops could not be used for more than a few minutes without overheating.

"The leaks were primarily the result of dissimilar metal corrosion that required the right combination of time on orbit and increased condensation to manifest itself," Frank Culbertson told Congress last fall. "Design changes were developed for the Russian modules to be flown as part of ISS, to prevent the problem from occurring there."

After recognizing the problem, the Russians had to tear out the coolant loops in their partly constructed Service Module and replace them with what they hoped were more-durable lines. It was an excellent case study on the value to ISS design of suffering breakdowns on Mir -- although U.S. presence on board Mir was not necessary to gain the lesson.

Other ISS design improvements due to U.S. experience on Mir involve the force exerted on equipment by astronauts' movements inside the station. Before the Mir flights, the values designers were using for landing and push-off forces were based on Skylab experiments, where the astronauts had been deliberately shaking the whole station as hard as possible.

But careful measurements made on Mir by U.S. astronauts Shannon Lucid and Jerry Linenger showed that the documented requirements were much too high. The finding was confirmed by a few tests on one shuttle flight and by ground tests on the air-bearing (frictionless) table in Houston. The reduced load requirement saves significantly on the weight of most of the internal secondary structure, such as racks, panels, and handholds. If this overkill had not been demonstrated on Mir, most of the hardware on ISS would already have been heavily overbuilt by the time such loads were measured.

Mir has also served as a showcase for Mission Control Center tools being developed for ISS. One team designed their own console displays for showing Mir life support data being fed from Moscow to Houston, and for several weeks performed flight-following activities to monitor the status of the real station. Another group built a prototype Consolidated Planning System, which

[33] generated schedules for future crew activity for the entire Mir crew. The system was run last summer as a proof-of-concept in parallel with the much less automated Russian system. The upshot will be more mature and more reliable systems for early use with ISS.

Timing is everything

The cultural exposure has enlightened both U.S. and Russian nationals, though one cynic noted it was "nothing that other Americans hadn't learned long ago." In fact, last year one NASA prankster circulated a memo about "effective cooperation with Russians" that impressed people with its timely insights, until a note at the end revealed it was written by a U.S. Army general visiting Moscow during World War II.

Lessons-learned lists at NASA contain dozens of cultural observations, although their utility may be questionable. "Russian engineers within RSC Energiya seem to be genuinely unconcerned about the U.S./Russian contract between NASA and RSA for the NASA/Mir program," noted one August 1997 report. "Based upon past experience, the Russian engineers appear to get no benefits from jobs well-done and no penalties seem to be incurred from jobs poorly done."

Among the discoveries about how the Russians do business was the observation that there is no monolithic "Russian space program," but instead a conglomeration of uncoordinated and often antagonistic authorities. "The cosmonaut training center and Mission Control-they hate each other," one NASA controller told Spectrum privately. "You'd think they were in two different space programs." The Russian's wretched pay encourages an on-going hemorrhage of experienced workers from program, and he added, "the unpublished feeling is that this problem will only get worse."

Surprisingly, officials at NASA headquarters seem to be caught unaware by repeated delays in deliveries of promised Russian equipment and services. Yet one internal report's major advice was "generally the accuracy of a schedule can be [estimated] based on time before the event" (or as a countdown to Liftoff) with adjustments for predictable delays. According to the report, "L minus 1 year" usually means it may happen in about 21 months; "L minus 1 month" usually means it will happen in two or three months.

Another genuine lesson deals with techniques of crew training for long and short space missions. In a recent special White Paper on the benefits of the Shuttle-Mir program, NASA stated that "the U.S. approach to crew training and to scheduling of crew members aboard the Space Station is being modified thanks to experience aboard the Mir...[which has] shown that training for Station crew members should emphasize generic skills rather than specific experiment-related skills. This will allow the astronauts to better deal with a wide range of potential circumstances," it concluded.

Culbertson elaborated, "The Russians train for systems skills rather than for flight-specific tasks. This is a natural approach for long-duration missions. ... The U.S. crews and instructors are becoming more accustomed to this strategy." Added Wilbur Trafton, a NASA deputy administrator who resigned late last year, "We learned quickly that when you are operating a space station, you need to do skill-oriented training, and give the researchers their objectives, and let them go conduct research."

Outside observers retort that the discovery could have been made even in the absence of U.S. experience on Mir. There would have been opportunities in pre-flight simulations (such as 90-day isolation runs to test life support systems in 1997), interviews with Skylab and Mir veterans, and actual experience aboard ISS.

Further, the much-vaunted transition to Russian-style training has recently been reversed, at least insofar as spacewalk training is concerned. "There were big changes in EVA planning" in February, one NASA Mission Control expert told Spectrum. Skill-oriented training was out in favor of a return to task-oriented training.

The change of mind followed more thorough planning of the EVAs required to assemble the multimodular ISS. Several years ago, Space Station Freedom had called for all assembly outside the spacecraft to be performed by the visiting shuttle crews, not the station crew in residence. But the tasks grew so complex and required so many more hours to complete that they could not be finished during the week-long shuttle-docked phase of the flight. So they fell to the station's permanent crew.

This shift in responsibility went along with the advertised philosophy of stressing skill-based versus task-based training. It called for space station crewmen to be assigned complex tasks in space that they had trained only briefly for, and months earlier, which worried some NASA veteran planners. But it seemed to be the way the Russians were doing it.

In the end it did not work. The strict requirements for extensive assembly training and the long lead time between training a space station crew on earth and their actual performance of the operations months later in orbit overburdened the schedules of astronauts and training facilities alike. In recent months the assembly tasks have been re-assigned to visiting shuttle crews fresh from much more specialized training.

Former astronaut Kevin Chilton, for the last two years ISS deputy director for operations, told Spectrum: "We've insisted that the time-critical assembly EVAs be done with shuttle crews" who have been task trained.

Using astronauts with only generic skill training was simply not feasible. "We saw how skill-based training failed during the contingency EVAs late last year," a Mission Control EVA expert told Spectrum. "The cosmonauts only had to install handrails and braces on the damaged Spektr module, but it was much more difficult and time-consuming than had been expected."

[34] In this case, the latest operational lesson learned is to disregard what people last year thought was a classic lesson learned about the benefits of Russian-style training techniques.

The other path to knowledge

One NASA public white paper in 1997 praised "specific design enhancements and modifications of the Space Station and other new knowledge based on Shuttle-Mir experience." At the top of the list was the assertion that "After the fire aboard Mir, software for the Space Station was modified so that a single command can stop ventilation between modules." NASA Administrator Dan Goldin often points to this specific item as proof of the value of having U.S. crew members aboard Mir.

Further, according to ISS engineers involved in building the NASA Laboratory Module, news of the Mir fire prompted them to add firewalls (partitions in cable runs to allow adequate concentration of fire suppressing chemicals) along the standoff conduits that carry cables and plumbing the length of the module. Steven D. Goo, Boeing's chief space station engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., told the McGraw-Hill publication Aerospace Daily last November that the Mir fire sent his engineers "back to the drawing board" to improve fire suppression systems.

However, these descriptions of improvements may be garbled or at least exaggerated. The role played in them by the Mir is not so clearcut. First, according to space station engineers, there is no such single panic button. Although fans in the U.S. modules are indeed wired so that a smoke alarm or a thrown switch will trigger a shutdown, the fans and air ducts in the Russian modules are not connected and must still be shut off manually. A single cut-off button had also featured in the design of Space Station Freedom nearly 10 years ago, and had been installed on NASA's Skylab space station a quarter-century ago.

Nor were the firewall changes on the U.S. Lab Module for the ISS added because of the fire on Mir. "It was already in the design," Kevin Chilton told Spectrum. "We had a good design."

NASA has circulated other arguably dubious claims about the Mir experience. During the intense public debate last September over sending Americans to the troubled Mir, the space agency issued a White Paper on "Benefits of the Shuttle-Mir Program." Repeating official assertions about the program's goal of gaining long-duration tour experience, the three-page report stated: "For less than two percent of the total cost of the Space Station program, NASA is gaining knowledge and experience through Shuttle-Mir that could not be achieved any other way."

But the claims often fail to withstand scrutiny. A claim that the experience in rendezvous, docking, and spacewalking was valuable is undermined by the observation that plans for these operations were based on ground analysis, and they worked as planned. If NASA had gone directly to the ISS, the planning for such operations would have been the same as for the Shuttle-Mir; and they likely would have worked just as well. There was no need to do them first on Mir.

All the other lessons-learned examples listed in the NASA White Paper involve refinements of procedures that might well have gone as smoothly after a few ISS missions as they did after the Shuttle-Mir missions. These procedures encompass target lighting, sensor development, equipment verification, techniques refinement, and the like. Some of the claims had nothing to do with Mir at all, but were associated with experiments performed independently on shuttle flights during Mir docking missions.

Still, NASA officials keep coming up with new lists of Shuttle-Mir benefits. Randy Brinkley, the NASA Space Station program manager, defended the worth of Shuttle-Mir experience during a speech at the 48th International Astronautical Congress in Turin, Italy, in October 1997. He described procedural changes made by NASA on the basis of Mir experience. Examples were procedures for operating joined modules, for controlling a large structure using space shuttle jets, and for exchanging data between U.S. and Russian control centers.

Other Mir veterans made their own recommendations for ISS improvements in the light of their own experience with Mir's shortcomings. Shannon Lucid, who spent six months on Mir in 1996, said the ISS needed a much better inventory control and stowage system. "One of the biggest problems with doing work on Mir is stowage and being able to find things. Once you found the things needed to do your experiments, you were 90 percent finished." But why didn't the Russians, or anyone who interviewed the cosmonauts or read their published memoirs, discover this years ago?

French Mir veteran Michel Tognini specified other Mir deficiencies that would have to be fixed for ISS. There were too few body restraints, too few communications opportunities with earth, and no portable computers. ISS plans -- past and present -- include portable computers.

The path not taken

Merely listing Mir's inadequacies has been no guarantee that the desired improvements will show up on ISS. To illustrate: space flight veterans report that an unanticipated daily challenge is trash management. The piles of scrap paper, food wrappings, soiled clothing, and broken equipment take up far more room than the tightly packed original packages, and sacks of trash are stuffed into unused corners and tunnels. For Mir, the problem has been even worse.

Original plans called for Space Station Freedom to have a trash compactor, but it was deleted from the ISS design. The Russians plan to use one of their modules as a flying dumpster, but the measures planned on the U.S. side of ISS will be totally inadequate, according to astronauts at work on this problem. Artistic visions of astronauts soaring through neat, spacious modules will, according to Mir veterans, become nightmarish skirmishes with swarms of trash bags, old documents, and inoperable electronics, because adequate interior trash ADD and equipment END storage volume was not factored into the baseline ISS design.

The inverse of the trash problem is the blank paper issue. One of Goldin's crusades is for paperless offices, even paperless control centers. Worthy though this goal may be on earth, Mir experience shows it is the wrong direction for space. "On Mir, the No. 1 commodity was paper," a Space Station manager told Spectrum privately. "They were writing on walls, on food wrappers, on clothing. They were begging for more paper in upcoming supply flights." Whether the ISS crews will be allocated enough paper and enough used-paper storage space, seems not to have been settled.

Another striking (but apparently unlearned) lesson from the Mir crises in 1997 is that Mir often starts drifting freely when its attitude control system shuts down. Its orientation with respect to the sun and earth becomes random, the solar panels stop generating electricity, and on-board batteries must carry the power load. Yet Mir has been robust enough to drift for hours, even a day or more, before orientation control can be restored and the solar arrays can be turned to the sun.

ISS cannot do this. According to space station engineers who spoke privately with Spectrum, the ISS has been verified as thermally safe only for orientations within 15 degrees of planned. Beyond that, Spectrum was told, "nobody knows what could happen." Some components could freeze up, others could overheat, while the batteries struggle to handle the station's power consumption.

Space-to-ground communications is another significant operation. U.S. experts during Shuttle-Mir labored to accommodate this feature of Mir, which will be very different aboard ISS. Beyond the process of exchanging real-time information looms the much bigger problem of poor Mission Control awareness of the true situation aboard Mir.

Mir's communications capabilities are about the worst ever to be flown on manned spacecraft. Mir itself is not to blame. The Russian ground tracking systems deployed around the world have largely collapsed under budget pressure, and the

[35] one surviving space-to-space relay satellite has to be leased from another Russian government agency at a price so exorbitant that it is affordable only for the most critical operations.

Thus U.S. crew members on Mir could expect to talk to their NASA colleagues for only a few periods of a few minutes each day. They often spent more time chatting with ham radio operators, or using the Johnson Space Center's amateur radio club as an unofficial ground station. Their e-mail exchanges were helpful but were often delayed or lost.

This isolation had both practical and psychological costs. Difficulties with experiments often took days to resolve, and stress levels were often high. Conflicts, repeated requests, angry demands, and desperate workaround measures characterized NASA's Mir communications from the first to the last moments of Mir visits.

The inadequate communications often left ground with little insight into the actual Mir status and configuration. The crew was usually on its own. "Most of them liked it that way," one NASA operator told Spectrum. But in times of trouble, such as the fire last year, the ground's advice was skimpy, late, and ineffective.

Also, ground planning for space activities often collided with features of Mir that the crew had never mentioned. In several instances, "other Russian hardware...blocked access [to] several lockers containing hardware for joint science activities," according to one NASA lessons-learned document. "So science that was originally time-lined had to eventually be postponed until the hardware was removed/relocated." In fact, as the same document pointed out, trainers on the ground had given up on keeping track of Mir's internal configuration: "The Mir mock-up is not very flight-like," the report delicately stated.

Of course, ISS already is designed to have far superior communications coverage, so the lessons NASA learned on Mir apply only to Mir. "ISS isn't Mir" is a refrain that Phase 2 workers often used to denigrate the Shuttle-Mir experience, and in this specific area, they are absolutely justified.

Heeding the past generation

Jeff Cardenas, a lead operations specialist with Phase 1, has recently been working to ensure that documented lessons from Shuttle-Mir reach the right audience on the ISS side. As he told Spectrum, more and more he is hearing the plaintive refrain, "Gee, we wish we knew that two years ago."

"Pockets of guys over there recognize things have gotten out of hand and that they need some help," he continued. "But most Phase 2 folks are unconvinced they have anything to learn from Phase 1."

One barrier was the way the lessons were written. "It was highly varied," he told Spectrum. "Often it simply wasn't comprehensible to Phase 2." On the Phase 2 side, Chilton agreed. "The key to success is how a good lessons-learned is written," he told Spectrum.

Raw memos or the minutes of Mir debriefings are not

[36] enough, according to Cardenas' co-worker David Lengyel. "These are written in Mir-specific terms and on the surface are not salient to Phase 2," he told Spectrum. Phase 1 engineers assume that most Phase 2 workers ignored most reports filed on the lessons learned over the past two years.

Lengyel, who came to NASA three years ago from McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, St. Louis, and now heads a task force on the transfer of lessons learned, expects work like his to improve matters. A lot of people have a mindset that has to be overcome, he explained. "The Phase 1 people see themselves as stepping stones to Phase 2, but the Phase 2 people in general don't see themselves as heirs to Phase 1."

Again, Phase 2 deputy director for operations Chilton does not argue with this assessment. "We have two groups each going 90 million miles an hour who hardly have time to pause and speak to each other," he told Spectrum."The human tendency on the Phase 2 side was to say that the Phase 1 stuff doesn't apply, since we're not flying Mir. And the human tendency on the Phase 1 side is for guys to run into that wall a few times and then not want to do it again."

Another Phase 2 manager told Spectrum more bluntly that the Phase 1 people caused a lot of budget hits in some Phase 2 departments, while a lot of people in Phase 2 felt there was nothing to be learned from Phase 1.

Phase 2's attitude stemmed in part from the fact that, said Chilton, some of them have already been learning the Mir systems as related to the Russian Service Module, and may in some cases know the Russian systems better than the Shuttle-Mir guys, who concentrated on the experiment operations, at least before the 1997 accidents.

At any rate, last year, Chilton got Lengyel to organize several forums of Phase 1 and Phase 2 engineers. One of them assessed the Mir as an analog of the ISS Service Module, Lengyel told Spectrum, in which "we looked at in-flight maintenance, at their spares philosophy." The Russians tend to operate systems until they break, and NASA has moved toward that philosophy instead of the scheduled change-out strategy originally planned.

Further, noted Lengyel, the Russians are orbital pack rats, stowing away all sorts of broken equipment in case a few still-serviceable components may be needed. "The Russians tend to cannibalize, they keep parts on orbit," he explained. These useful insights dealt less with hardware design than with operational philosophies. "Ninety percent of these lessons are process oriented," said Lengyel. (Chilton uses the term methodology.) "Some are technical, or cultural, or a combination. And it's not just U.S.-Russian cultural gaps, it's those within NASA, or between NASA and contractors."

As the teams and their documentation matured, more opportunities arose for effective sharing of experience. On the ISS side, a detailed 10-volume document called the Station Program Integration Plan (SPIP) went through numerous iterations until, by late 1997, it began converging on a usable form. The documents defined the processes and subprograms within ISS, as well as the relationships between organizational structures, their responsibilities, and resources.

"We saw an opportunity to apply our lessons in a very systematic and analytical way," Lengyel explained, since now an expert could take a Phase 1 lesson and determine exactly who in the Phase 2 world was responsible for implementing it. "It defined the targets for our lessons-learned," Cardenas added.

These new efforts, and the wisdom that comes with experience, have resulted in the transfer of more and more operational lessons. Noted Cardenas: "Their first reaction was 'we aren't going to have that problem', but now their second reaction is 'we never thought of that'." From the Phase 2 side, Chilton corroborates that impression: "We weren't smart enough to ask ourselves the right questions until we saw someone else trying to solve something we never thought would happen."

As an example of Phase 2's new-found willingness to learn from Shuttle-Mir experience, Chilton points to the question of planning for the transfer logistics. Aboard the Mir, visiting crews unloaded tons of supplies by hand, package by package, an extremely laborious process of unloading, transport, and stowage on Mir, all with proper paperwork. At first the Phase 2 side claimed that on ISS the crew would transfer equipment rack by rack, not piece by piece; but then more detailed analysis proved a need for many piecemeal transfers also, said Chilton.

Tuition plus fees

Beyond these practicalities, Chilton and the other operations specialists stress the immeasurable benefits of using Russian experience and practicing with them on Mir. As for developing trust, studying is not enough. "You've got to be working problems together" to get to know each other, Chilton said. He admitted it took time, but concluded: "We've got that slow start behind us in Phase 1 instead of an extra risk on Phase 2."

Putting a number on the value of the Shuttle-Mir experience defies known accounting schemes. The hit-and-miss potpourri of lessons learned are all nice to know, but none seem so much prerequisites for beginning ISS, as lessons that could equally well be learned later in ISS's career. Where they undoubtedly help is in making the ISS challenge more manageable and thus freeing resources for dealing with the unspecifiable crises that will no doubt occur during station assembly.

Non-numeric values can also be assigned to Shuttle-Mir. Conceived as a diplomatic gesture to consummate the post-Soviet Moscow-Washington relationship and to bind the Russian aerospace industry to new Western partners, it has largely met those expectations. In need of resolution, though, are recent indications of renegade Russian aerospace teams providing technical assistance to outlaw nations, possibly with the collusion of bribed authorities in the space industry and government. Such threats would have been much greater without the massive Western tilt imposed on Russia's space industry.

And now the price. NASA paid the Russians upwards of US

[37] $500 million for the Mir experience, and spent even more out of its own budget in support of the visits. If the amortized costs of ground operations and the nine shuttle flights are included (though NASA does not keep its books that way), the entire Phase 1 program has cost more than $5 billion.

NASA also canceled a series of scheduled Shuttle/Spacelab missions to clear the way for the Mir dockings. Aside from the value of the data that would have been obtained (and must now be delayed for up to five years until Station science operations begin), these missions were expected to test U.S. hardware intended for installation aboard the ISS.

"A lot of things could have been learned in the Spacelab flights," Spectrum was told by a NASA ISS manager. "They were going to fly ISS racks and a lot of other hardware-cooling systems, air revitalization systems, avionics racks, and so forth." Following their space shakedown missions, these refrigerator-sized racks would be modified as needed and then taken back into space for permanent installation on ISS. Without flight-testing this hardware, it must be produced right the first time, and any first-flight troubles with such racks in the future can be assessed as a cost of flying Shuttle-Mir missions instead.

The bottom line

In the end what has NASA learned from Shuttle-Mir, and what has the outside world learned about NASA's lessons-learned process?

The U.S. space agency entered the process with a tremendous handicap, in that the team that needed the lessons most -- the ISS designers and planners -- for the most part wanted them least. When space experts tried to talk with this group, or volunteered to join it, they were usually cold-shouldered and were ignored for years.

Without a policy of actively learning from others' experiences, the ISS team were at first all but impervious to external learning. "We're not going to make all those old mistakes again" was their attitude, which turned out to be the perfect recipŽ for doing exactly what they had intended to avoid. Where this learning did happen, sporadically and episodically, it was based on individual personalities, not any overall strategy. There were bright spots, but they were exceptions.

The Russians have a proverb, "Better to see once than to hear a hundred times." NASA proved it true. In boasting about how much the Mir experience taught them, NASA officials unwittingly highlight the shallowness of pre-Mir preparation, which laid the groundwork for the NASA astonishment over the 1997 Mir crises.

While most of the boasted lessons were obvious or would have been easily obtainable after some research, NASA did not implement a proactive strategy for finding them before Shuttle-Mir. Instead, the space agency was later forced into a reactive strategy of acknowledging the importance of issues that kept popping up -- too late for many key design decisions. In fact, NASA may be setting itself up for worse surprises during ISS if its attention is confined to specific Shuttle-Mir lessons, rather than to implementing an active wide-ranging lesson-search process (the kind that would have prevented the need for learning these things on Shuttle-Mir).

Without such an effort, one can expect a whole new string of ISS operational crises that will again catch NASA by surprise, which only in hindsight will be seen to have been avoidable, as last year's Mir fire and collision were. Last year at a private team briefing on the then-latest Russian performance inadequacies, ISS Program Manager Randy Brinkley sounded almost plaintive when he lamented, "The Russians have just GOT to stop surprising us." Yet NASA should have no excuse to allow itself to be caught by surprise by developments many other people had long predicted.

So the biggest lesson learned from Shuttle-Mir should be that NASA did not need Shuttle-Mir to learn most of its reported lessons, and it should not succumb to the delusion on that it ever did.

Foale, who was aboard Mir during the collision and hull breach last June, mentioned another lesson in a post-landing interview with an Associated Press reporter. "If you told me that all of the things that happened were going to happen," he admitted, "I'd have said, 'I don't want to do that', because I'm a fairly sensible person. But once you've done it and you've passed through that stage," he continued, "it's very rewarding; and I'm going to look back on all this with great pleasure."

Psychologists recognize that the idea of "passing the test of a trial by fire" or "validation by deliberate danger" often leads individuals tofoolishlyexpose themselves to unnecessary risks, and then ex post facto justify their original poor judgment by claiming to have 'learned lessons' from such rash behavior. Yet the only real measure of the value of the learned lessons is in how much they modify future behavior with regard to rationally assessing risk and making decisions.

So it can be hoped that much of what has been learned on Shuttle-Mir will reduce risks on ISS, and insofar as that process is pushing forward within NASA, valuable benefits may have have accrued -- although only the actual ISS operations experience will determine whether or not the right lessons have been learned, or if NASA again has to learn it all the hard way.


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