By Marc Kaufman
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 10:08 AM
Jerry Linenger was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.
The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.
"Expectations unmet are a horrible thing," Linenger recalled, "especially when you're already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn't."
Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount.
"They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow," he remembered, "and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy."
He said it was a very good idea for the Chileans to be honest with the miners that they would probably be down in the mine for four months: "You just can't let that news dribble out. You ruin people like that psychologically."
Linenger said the experience changed him significantly, and he expects the same will happen with the Chilean miners.
"What you learn is that human beings have a real tenacity at their core - that some of that cave man struggling to get by is still in us. . . Life on Earth is pretty cushy for most of us, and I think too many people take that for granted. That's why stories like mine and the miners are so important - they remind people of how human beings can survive and prevail in the most difficult circumstances. Truly, mankind is watching."
He also said he disagreed with some commentators who say it is essential that leaders in the trapped group come forward and take control:
"When the three of us were in the capsule, there was no commander, no Russian or American - just one small group. You don't need one guy bossing everyone around."
Not all the Russian long stays in space isolation are due to failures, as on Mir. Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 days in the Mir in 1995 as part of an effort to show that humans could survive in microgravity and isolation long enough to make it to Mars. Polyakov returned "big and strong" and "like he could wrestle a bear," NASA astronaut and fellow Mir traveler Norman Thagard said. A medical doctor, Polyakov did a strenuous workout every day.
In keeping with the Russians' interest in longevity in space, the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems is currently conducting a long-term isolation experiment that will keep six men in a grounded space module for 17 months. The goal is to test their physical and psychological capabilities as part of research for a future Mars mission. The crew, which was locked in three months ago, consists of three Russians, an Italian, a Chinese man and a Frenchman. All volunteered for the experiment despite the known rigors of that kind of prolonged isolation.
NASA has also also done considerable work on the effects of isolation among astronauts on the international space station and other missions. The agency's knowledge and experience working with men and women living in relative isolation is why the Chileans have sought its advice in handling the situation underground.