A Diary in Space

I recently read a fascinating book – a diary of a man who spent about a year on a space station. In his journal, he expresses his excitement about learning to live and work in space. He’s proud of the opportunity to represent his country, and he enjoys sharing his accomplishments with international visitors to the crew. He learns to appreciate the automated systems on the next-generation spacecraft sent for resupply. He grows – and eats – plants in space. He worries about ennui, and at one point enjoys playing a practical joke on ground control with a monster mask. He particularly enjoys exercising on the treadmill and observing earth’s geology. His dream is to perform a spacewalk, and he achieves that goal.

You might think I’m referring to astronaut Mark Kelly’s hashtag-YearInSpace. But I’m not.
The man is Valentin Lebedev, and the book is “Diary of a Cosmonaut.” The mission is Salyut-7. The year is 1982.

I found the book quite interesting to compare to recent events in spaceflight. For one thing, the similarity between Lebedev’s Soviet mission and Kelly’s #YearInSpace was uncanny. I’m not even kidding about the monster mask – it came up to the Salyut station with French cosmonaut-visitor Jean-Loup ChrĂ©tien. Lebedev’s translator wrote the phrase “learn to live and work in space” even then, back in the early 1980s.

What sticks in my head, though, are the ways the Salyut-7 mission differ from a contemporary NASA International Space Station Expedition. In 1982, the Soviet Union was not able to communicate with their stations over the full length of the orbit. As a result, the two-cosmonaut crew had a much greater degree of autonomy than NASA affords a modern mission. Lebedev and his commander made their own decision to extend their spacewalk. They often decide which scientific experiments to do. They determine much of their own exercise regimen, and they arrange the interior of their station to their liking. These are behaviors that NASA must learn – re-learn, really – if they truly want to send humans out to “live and work” beyond Earth orbit. Especially at Mars, where real-time communication back and forth with mission control is not feasible.

This is not to say that everything was better on Salyut than on ISS. At one point, the two cosmonauts smell something burning – fire is an immediate existential danger on a spacecraft. They’re out of communications with the control center, so the cosmonauts grab a fire extinguisher and go hunting for the source on their own. They find the source of the smell – a component overheating – and take care of the problem. Then, they decide not to tell ground control. Wouldn’t want to worry them! In another instance, the cosmonauts are rearranging supplies and equipment on their station when they find that a refrigeration unit won’t fit behind a panel. So: they get out a saw, and start cutting the metal panel. (Somebody thought they would need a saw?!) I’m all for astronauts learning to build and repair things in space, but this activity leads the cosmonaut to make the logical complaint. Metal shavings float everywhere, and one goes in his eye. (Fortunately, his companion is able to remove it, ending that cringeworthy episode.)

There’s a lot the modern NASA could learn from these programs of the past: they were steeped in ingenuity and piloted by independent souls who really had the Right Stuff. But there’s also a lot we have learned: to plan thoroughly, to account for then-unknown contingencies, and to sustain a human presence in space for continuous years. What amazes me most, though, is how, over thirty years later, the broad architecture of life on a space station and the research program in space is the same. We need a next step. Centrifugal gravity, closed-loop life support, agriculture in space: We know the kinds of technologies we need to do to truly enable life and work in space. If only NASA would do it.

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