NASA’s Lack of Shuttle Diplomacy

The Washington Post
December 10, 1998
(Review of “Dragonfly: Nasa and the Crisis Aboard Mir” by Bryan Burrough)

Space flight is in vogue again. The journey of John Glenn has refocused attention on the fascinating spectacle of humans soaring into the heavens on rockets that make the ground tremble. Glenn’s voyage may have seemed a bit stage-managed, but you would need to be heartless not to draw some satisfaction from the show. NASA has launched itself into a public relations orbit, getting high-fives from the public and politicians.

It is easy to forget that just a year ago NASA was mired in controversy, facing withering criticism for flying Americans on Russia’s space station, Mir, which careened from one near-disaster to another. First there was a fire onboard, and that was followed by a collision, and that was followed by computer failures, power failures, oxygen-generating failures and pretty much every sort of failure that might afflict a space station. Those events, which played out like a cosmic tragicomedy, were front-page news for a while, but Mir eventually steadied itself and fell off the journalistic radar screen once its last American passenger returned to Earth earlier this year.

Mir seems like ancient and irrelevant history now, but Bryan Burrough brings it to life in his remarkable book “Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir.” He reveals a space agency so riddled with infighting that, for instance, two astronauts training for the same flight on Mir stopped speaking to each other. Tales of intrigue at NASA are not new, but Burrough, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and coauthor of the best-selling “Barbarians at the Gate,” has come up with much that was unknown, based partly on NASA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. His book probably will become required reading, and entertaining reading, for anyone who wants to understand the dysfunction of our space agency.

Burrough interviewed key officials, astronauts and cosmonauts in the Mir saga, and he has come up with some reportorial gems. We learn, for instance, that shortly after the collision that nearly destroyed Mir, the NASA astronaut on board, Michael Foale, tried to bolster the sagging spirits of his Russian crew mates by showing, on a computer monitor, the movie “Apollo 13.” Foale gave a running translation into Russian, and his ploy worked. “That film is the best of the best,” Vasily Tsibliyev, Mir’s beleaguered commander, later told Burrough.

The outlines of the drama on Mir are already known–the decay of the craft’s mechanical systems after 11 years in orbit, the psychological erosion of commander Tsibliyev, the almost universal dislike of astronaut Jerry Linenger, the heroism of his successor, Foale, the mistrust between NASA and the Russians, the horrendous planning at mission control that made a collision all but inevitable. Yet Burrough ties the story together with illuminating details gleaned, in part, from previously unpublished recordings of conversations between Mir and mission control. We read, for example, that a few minutes after the collision on June 25, 1997, Tsibliyev told ground control, “Oh, hell. We don’t know where the [air] leak is.” Asked to seal off the module from which air is leaking, he said, “We can’t close anything. Here everything is so screwed up that we can’t close anything.”

“Dragonfly” is not just a post-mortem, it is a prescription for the future. On Saturday NASA and the Russian Space Agency launched the first module of the International Space Station, a successor to Mir. The book’s greatest value lies in the way it exposes rivalries in Houston and Moscow that make space flight a miracle not because of the technical challenges that must be overcome, but because of the bureaucratic ineptitudes that hamstring many missions.

Most appallingly, Burrough examines the culture of fear among astronauts afraid of saying or doing anything that might displease Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey, who can determine who flies and who doesn’t. Burrough compares Abbey to, among others, Rasputin and J. Edgar Hoover. Although fear of powerful bureaucrats exists in every federal agency, the consequences are alarming at NASA because astronauts, according to Burrough, are afraid to voice concerns about safety problems or ill-designed missions.

Burrough also shows that scientific research, trumpeted by NASA as a key justification for space flight, is window dressing. Just as the Apollo program was driven by the need to get to the moon before the Russians, today’s space program is driven primarily by political motives, in this case propping up the Russian Space Agency and bolstering U.S.-Russian relations. Burrough comes up with a delightful example. When Norm Thagard, the first American on Mir, returned to Earth after more than three months in space, NASA doctors wanted to administer a battery of immediate tests before his body began readjusting to gravity. But they were told to cut short the tests because NASA Administrator Dan Goldin wanted to hold a news conference at which he intended to serve an ice cream sundae to Thagard.

This book has minor problems. It jumps too rapidly from one setting to another, from Houston to Moscow to Mir to Washington, and the revolving cast of characters is so large that readers unfamiliar with the American or Russian space programs may get confused. The extracts of official documents and conversations are useful, but Burrough occasionally seems to paste one extract and quote after another. The quickness with which this book has been brought out, just a year after the headlines it grew from, makes it timely, but the haste shows. It has none of the literary dazzle of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”

These are small complaints. Burrough has done a splendid job of examining an agency that is entrusted with our dreams of exploring space. If the right people take notice of this book, as they should, our dreams of going to Mars and beyond stand a greater chance of being turned into a reality.

By Peter Maass, a freelance writer who covers space issues, among other subjects. He is the author of “Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.