Working with the Russians

In 1993, a move in the House of Representatives to cancel what was then Space Station Freedom failed by one vote. The administrator at that time, Dan Goldin then brought Russia into the proceedings, and thus the program became the International Space Station.

The good part about working with the Russians – they had a LOT of experience with space stations, with their series of Salyuts and then Mir. A space station mission is very different from a Space Shuttle mission, exactly like a marathon versus a sprint. With the Space Shuttle mission, you have 14 days to get it all done, so GO, GO, GO! With longer missions, you have to let the crew rest, have some time to just look out the window or read a book, and have some contact with family, so they don’t go crazy from the isolation and cramped quarters.

We started the Shuttle-Mir program, where the Space Shuttle made regular dockings with the Mir space station, and American astronauts stayed onboard for months at a time. Cosmonauts, including Sergei Krikalev, joined Shuttle crews. (Krikalev holds the record for the longest cumulative time spent in space and was on Mir with Alexander Volkov when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. They left Earth as USSR citizens and returned as Russian citizens.) I took part in five materials experiments that flew on Mir and learned a lot about not only the space environment but also the induced environment around an active space station. Two of the experiments were victims of a Shuttle “water” dump while it was docked at Mir. Four of the five were contaminated by the heavy use of silicones and lack of thermal vacuum bakeouts of hardware on Mir. (The fifth one was not exposed very long.)

Side note on materials – why is silicone a bad thing? Well, it’s great for seals, but the Russians used large amounts of silicone adhesive on their solar arrays and white silicone paint on their modules. This outgassed in the space environment and coated everything in line-of-sight, then reacted with the space environment. The white paint turned brown, making that surface warmer, and the solar arrays lost power. We looked at what impact this would have on the ISS radiators’ ability to dump heat, and that kind of degradation would lead to having to change the radiators every two years.

Mir solar array. The white/fogged areas are heavily contaminated with silicone.

The bad part about working with the Russians – the terrible fire onboard Mir and a collision with a Progress resupply vehicle, both in 1997. We grew concerned about the priority of crew safety in Russian minds. The Russians liked the American cash in their space program and not much else. I guess something left over from the Soviet days was a very close-mouthed attitude on the part of the Russian engineers. They spoke only through translators, but it was pretty obvious that they were passably fluent in English. You might ask them a question in the middle of a meeting that they would not answer, but if you asked again in private, they would.

4 thoughts on “Working with the Russians”

  1. Totally different context, but working with the Russians in Kosovo was horrific. Never seen a worse military organization in my life.

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