Experiencing space through an American cosmonaut

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- An American astronaut learned Russian, trained as a cosmonaut and joined a crew aboard an orbiting Mir station for 115 days in 1995.

Norman Thagard brought the tale of his training and flight to the Wetherbee Planetarium at Thronateeska Heritage Center Saturday for two shows.

"I'd like to show kids that engineering, science and math can be fun," Thagard said. "America is short of engineers and if I can make an impression on kids, that might help them make plans for college and a career."

In a program that allowed NASA astronauts to become cosmonauts, be launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome and spend time in space on a mission with other cosmonauts, Thagard first had to study Russian.

He started studying about two years before NASA thought to give him intense 8-hours-a- day lessons. Considering Thagard was 51 at the time, he proved the saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," wrong.

Anyone would be envious of a man who, during the course of his cosmonaut training, had a physician tell him he had the aerobic capacity of a 21 year old.

That pointed out one of the differences in the training between American and Russian spacemen and women. The American program wasn't as physically demanding as the Russian program.

There were other differences. Cosmonauts had to take written exams, even a final exam, before they were allowed into space. In the American system, the astronauts are monitored every step of the way.

No written exams were used.

NASA also has tougher standards of safety for people on the ground during a launch. While a crowd of well-wishing officials and launch technicians can crowd close to the rocket before the launch in Russia, NASA requires everyone be three miles from the rocket.

"They had 163 people killed at a rocket site when a ship exploded," Thagard said, "but they still allowed everyone close to the rocket."

Also, the Russians don't allow the families of the cosmonauts to attend launches. NASA invites and provides transportation for the families of astronauts to attend.

Other than those sorts of differences, Thagard said, the guts of the training for space flight, like the engineering, was the same -- except spoken in Russian instead of English.

"There were those differences in training but in the most part it is the same as NASA," Thagard said. "That is because there is really only one way to do the things that make up a safe space flight."

Thagard's talk with a PowerPoint slide show impressed about 80 people ranging from toddlers through grandparents.

"It was a great talk. It reminded me of John Kennedy's saying not only would we put a man on the moon, but within the decade," said Anne deRossett from Raleigh, N.C., in town visiting her family. "The pictures of the Russian facilities really showed ours are a lot better."

An Albany resident, deRossett's son, Bellamy, hoped the talk would nudge his daughter Anna, 10, to be more interested in math and science.

"Oh I really hope so," he said. "I really hope so."

In a question-and-answer period, Thagard was asked a question about the effect of weightlessness on his body. He said he lost 20 percent of his blood cells resulting in anemia and 20 percent of his calf muscle due to lack of exercise in weightless conditions.

"Now that was very interesting to me," said Chauncey Keith, a physical trainer. "You really need exercise."

Thagard said during his talk, one question always asked is, "How do you go to the bathroom in space?"

His answer, "Very carefully."