With those words, ABB group vice president, Mark Taft, introduced former US Navy flier, physician, and astronaut, Dr. Jerry Linenger…
I am here in Houston at the 2006 ABB Automation World, which has over 2500 attendees this year…roughly 1000 more than last year. One of those attendees is Trent Mullin of Devon Energy’s Jackfish project who just placed a huge order for ABB system plus field instruments and is here to see what ABB really can do, now that he is a major customer. The order was so huge, apparently, that it went across very high level desks at ABB.
Linenger was the after dinner speaker for the welcome banquet (not at all a bad meal…no rubber chicken here)tonight. In a sometimes rambling, highly personal, sometimes quite emotional speech, he described what it was like on the Soviet Space Station MIR.
“There are three parts to my life,” Linenger said. “The first part was up to my stay on MIR, the second part was the five months on MIR that absolutely changed my life, and the third part is my life after MIR.”
He described his stay on MIR as being completely cut off from the rest of humanity with the exception of his two Russian cosmonaut team members, neither of whom spoke English. MIR’s communication with Moscow Ground Control was spotty to non-existent. “The communications system must have been built by GE,” Linenger joked, to a room full of ABB executives and high level customers.
“I am not here to entertain you with stories about space,” Linenger went on, “but to change your life.”
He told of his time at the US Naval Academy. “They make you take an oath when you first get there,” he said. “It is the Naval Academy Honor Code. ‘I will not lie, cheat or steal, and I will not tolerate around me those who do.’ Now, you may ask,” Linenger continued, “how it is possible to demand that an 18 year old kid take and keep an oath like that? Well, we are challenged, we are all challenged, with the need for moral courage, whether you are a midshipman, or a business person working for ABB or one of ABB’s customers.”
“The foundation of teamwork is individual competence,” Linenger said.
It is extremely important to realize this “when you are strapped to a can with 7 million pounds of thrust in it by a team member, who closes the door, and then goes about two and a half miles away and dives into a bunker,” Linenger reported.
Linenger told of his arrival in Moscow, and his asking his hosts where “Star City” was, on the map. The Soviets did not put KGB bases, he said, on maps. They arrived at Star City under heavy guard with Soviet troops bristling with Kalashnikovs and his wife was gripping his arm more than firmly. “Jerry, what have you gotten us into now?”
“Five months was a long time not to see my son,” Linenger troped throughout his talk. “When I was going through the near death experiences I had on MIR, I realized that I had not left him anything to remember me by, so I started adding personal notes to the very few downloads we could send home.”
What near death experiences? (For all the details, visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mir/textin
This was the time that the oxygen generator failed on MIR, and they had two hours to fix it or suffocate.
This was the time the automatic solar wing positioner system failed, and they had less than 48 hours of power and air, and it was very dark in space…
And this was the time that the oxygen generation system (reportedly built by ABB competitor Siemens) caught fire, nearly burning a hole right through the pressure hull of the space station itself.
In each case, the three crew members of MIR managed to save themselves, just barely.
Linenger said it took him about a month to adapt so completely to weightlessness that when he got home he found himself parking a glass of milk in the air, and being amazed when it fell to the floor and smashed. Ruefully, he reported that his wife gave him sippy cups, like his toddler used.
In another case, Linenger was doing an EVA at the end of a long, telescoping pole, without a steerable jet pak like US space teams get for EVAs. He was far enough away from MIR to discover himself alone in space. Suddenly he realized that he was in freefall going 18,000 miles per hour, and he froze, panicked. White knuckled, he told himself that it was okay to be falling at 18,000 miles per hour as long as there was no bottom. And, of course, in orbit there is no bottom. You just keep falling. He was able to complete his mission task, and he even asked the cosmonaut running the pole to keep him out there so he could enjoy the site. That night, he wrote to his son, John, “your dad has courage.”
“If I can do that, you can do it too. You can overcome any obstacle, complete any task, that you put your mind to.”
Both as a physician and astronaut, he was worried about the physiological changes from long periods of time in space. As they came home on Atlantis, the crew were constantly checking him to see if he was fine. On landing, the medical officer came aboard Atlantis, and told Linenger that they had a stretcher to carry him to the medical tent.
Linenger struggled erect, and then said, “I am an officer in the United States Navy. We do not get carried off in stretchers.” He managed, painfully and slowly to walk out of the shuttle and walk to the medical bay. He, despite intense exercise on MIR, suffered over 65% bone loss. After nearly 2 years, he was back to feeling his old self, but there was a permanent 2% bone loss.
“This may be a deal killer for a two-and-a-half-year mission to Mars,” he noted, sadly.
“Emulate the kids around you,” he closed.