NASA Shuttle-Mir Oral
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 28 August 1998
Today is August 28, 1998. We're speaking to Dr. John Charles as part
of the Shuttle-Mir Oral History Program. Rebecca Wright, Glen Swanson,
and Paul Rollins.
Thanks again for stopping by and visiting with us today.
Charles: Glad to be here.
Wright: We'd like for you to start by telling us what were your roles
and responsibilities in this program.
Charles: I started out as the cardiovascular discipline lead for the
Shuttle-Mir Program that was Norm [Norman] Thagard's flight, the whole
STS-71 Mir 18 experience, which meant I was the lead and the point
of contact for the cardiovascular set of investigations that were
part of the human life sciences investigations. I eventually became
the deputy project scientist for that assisting Peggy Whitson. Then
for the NASA-Mir Program, which is the second wave, the Shannon Lucid
and following flights, I became the project scientist for the human
life sciences investigations, all the disciplines of the human life
sciences, including cardiovascular, and neurosensory and musculoskeletal,
and all that kind of stuff.
After a couple of increments of that, I was asked to function as the
mission scientist for the NASA-Mir Program, and I was the mission
scientist specifically for NASA 4 and NASA 5, the Jerry Linenger and
Mike Foale missions. As a mission scientist, I was responsible for
not only the human life sciences, but all the other sciences, the
microgravity, the biology, the space sciences. Everything else that
was in the area of science, I was at least nominally responsible for.
Wright: Each one of those roles were extremely busy. Is that correct?
Charles: That is correct.
Wright: Were you able to build from that first experience to the last
Charles: Yes, it was a good progression. I was able to move from my
experiment to other experiments in my area of specialty, to other
experiments in my discipline, which was human life sciences, and eventually
then into the whole science thing. Luckily, in addition to being a
researcher myself, I've always been interested in all of science.
Before I settled in physiology, I dabbled in things like geology and
physics and astronomy, and have an extraneous or personal interest
in other areas of science. So I felt at least minimally qualified.
At least I knew when to nod when somebody was talking. I knew when
to look surprised if something was new, and stuff like that.
Wright: Tell us about the experiences with the first experience when
you were supporting Thagard. It was all new for everybody. How did
that all come together for you, and how were you able to help make
Charles: We were called upon, on short notice, to provide a payload
of life sciences investigations for Thagard's flight. We always seemed
to be caught by surprise. They may spend a lot of time getting these
programs going, but we always seemed to be caught by surprise at the
last moment to generate a payload of investigations. That seems to
be a recurring pattern throughout my career.
The payloads that were generated for Thagard's flight were, for the
most part, continuations of payloads, life sciences investigations,
I should say, that were managed by in-house investigators, and they
had been developed for something that preceded that, which was called
the EDOMP, the Extended Duration Orbiter Medical Project. The idea
of that was to qualify Shuttle crew members for long-duration Shuttle
flights, eighteen-day Shuttle flights, which had the requirement that
they be able to egress individually, unassisted, after a long-duration
Shuttle flight. So we had put together a set of investigations that
we thought would address that question, but in actuality were, I think,
good investigations to understand human physiology in space flight.
Because that was wrapping up at almost exactly the same time as the
Mir 18 STS-71 experience was getting going, and because there was
a call from headquarters to generate some experiments for this mission
that we had agreed to do, that was the obvious set of experiments.
So it was a relatively simple matter to transfer or translate those
investigations from a long-duration Shuttle flight into a long-duration
Mir mission. So that was a learning experience in terms of getting
a set of payloads together on short notice for that mission.
There were the inevitable alterations in mind-set as you go from Shuttle
to Mir, and from eighteen days to three months or longer, and a lot
of surprises dealing with our new partners, the Russians. It took
quite a while for us to understand the vagaries of the Russian program.
In addition to my other interests, I've also always been interested
in space flight history which, of course, includes a lot of Russian
space flight history. So I wasn't unprepared for the surprises that
came along, but I was unprepared for the magnitude of the surprises
that came along.
Some of the magnitude of surprises, it was, again, a matter of mind-set.
It took a long time for me to understand that what I was seeing was
really the truth. I kept trying to interpret what I was seeing in
light of what I thought I understood. We had, I think, all of us collectively
believed that the Russian space program was a monolith, and that there
was a decision-maker who then directed certain things to happen. I
don't know why we believed that, because our own space program certainly
is not that. But we had assumed that the totalitarian Soviets were
of the monolithic mind-set.
I think it's very clear now, in light of some space history publications,
in fact, several things have come out in Quest and otherwise have
shown us that not only is it not a monolith, but the Russian program
now, like the Soviet program before, is composed of factions that
compete vigorously with each other. In the life sciences arena, we
experience that. Specifically the factions that compete with each
other are Star City, the Russian Air Force-managed Cosmonaut Training
Center, Energia, the owner of all the hardware and half the cosmonauts,
and the IBMP, the Institute for Environmental Problems, which constitute
the front line of liaison for medical research.
We had many, many difficulties trying to negotiate what I thought
were fairly simple, straightforward investigations into this Russian
group of competing interests. I guess the thing that I can always
remember--and this may be something I strike out later, who knows--but
the thing that I remember is that the Russians are very good at negotiating,
I suspect because they've negotiated all their lives for every scrap
of food they've eaten, they've probably had to negotiate, whereas
we Americans always seem to present ourselves as fat, dumb, and happy.
I know we took a cross-cultural training course which, as I recall,
distilled down to essentially one or two lessons, and one of the lessons
that I recall was that the Russians don't believe in compromise, they
believe in winner take all. So when we sit down to negotiate with
them, the Americans like to compromise and meet a happy medium, and
as we do that, the Russians say, "Well, they gave that away.
That must mean there's lots more to take." Whereas we can't understand
why they're being so difficult to deal with. "We gave you half.
Why can't you meet us halfway?" And the Russians don't seem to
have any conception of meeting halfway. Either they win or they lose,
and if you've given up, well, that means you lose, and they, by definition,
win. So there was lots of learning along that lines.
Also the negotiations were complicated by the fact of the three parties--Energia,
Star City, and IBMP--they seemed to make it a point to only bring
two of those parties to any negotiation, or one party. You'd spend
hours or days perhaps negotiating points that were, to the American
point of view, to my point of view, trivial, and you'd finally come
to an agreement with the parties, so the next day, one of those parties
would be absent, and the third party would show up. That third party
would claim no knowledge of the preceding, and no interest in the
result, and even with exhortations of the other Russian, who was present
for those negotiations. You'd start all over.
So I came not to look forward to the negotiation sessions, and, of
course, every experiment, every detail of every experiment has to
be negotiated in the life sciences, in the microgravity sciences,
in the space sciences, and biology. Sometimes the negotiations are
facilitated when you have a counterpart who was strong and able to
dominate the other parties, and also interested in what you want to
The negotiations also seem to be facilitated when the counterpart,
when the NASA person and the Russian counterpart, the strong Russian
counterpart, had a pre-existing relationship, for example, in the
area of bone mineral studies using X-ray devices, called DEXA devices.
There'd been a longstanding relationship between the NASA individual
and the Russian. In the area of, surprising enough, water monitoring,
there had been a longstanding relationship. So those negotiations
almost seemed to be foregone conclusions, but the areas where the
Russians either didn't have a longstanding relationship or had, we
believe, some vested interest in not being as open as we might wish,
the negotiations could be painful and protracted. So that was a lesson
I learned, I think, from the Russian negotiation process, and it was
reinforced every time my responsibilities increased. I just saw that
it was the same thing in a different area. It wasn't just a peculiarity
of us and the guys we were dealing with. It seemed to be intrinsic
to the systems, both the American system and the Russian system.
We seemed to set ourselves up, because I know [not] all of us in NASA
are good negotiators. There may be certain people in certain specialties
that are good negotiators, but I think even in terms of the contracts
and the folks that oversee the technical details of the interaction,
I believe that we got hoodwinked on several occasions by thinking
that the words on the paper meant something that the Russians did
not think they meant. I mean, they may have been very full and complete
in English, but when they got read by Russians in Russian, they did
not carry the same meaning. So we spent a lot of time trying to get
the Russians to do what we think they originally agreed to do in the
first place, and which they apparently very sincerely believed they
had never agreed to in the first place.
That dealt with things like data sharing, which was our primary concern,
making sure we got the participation of the cosmonauts in the medical
studies, making sure that the medical studies the cosmonauts participated
in were the ones that we designed, and not some variant, and making
sure that we got the data back from those participations.
Then we also had some interesting experiences with differences in
the approach to medical caretaking. On some occasions the Russians
seemed to be rather cavalier about what their cosmonauts participated
in, and in some they seemed to be extremely overly interested.
One instance I recall was in the cardiovascular testing that took
place after the Mir 18 flight. One of the Russian crew members was
doing a stand test, a test of cardiovascular function post-flight.
He was having, apparently, some--I wasn't there--but I'm told he had
some difficulties. He was starting to feel uncomfortable standing
upright, perhaps leading to eventually to pre-syncope. That's usually
reflected in high heart rate and dropping blood pressure. So the Russian
flight surgeon, the man who I know and admire and love and respect,
the Russian flight surgeon began massaging his carotid arteries to
help him make it through the test. Of course, that invalidates the
test, because we're not interested in studying how a guy does when
somebody's helping him. You try to understand what the physiology
of that individual is doing, and not the physiology of that person
plus another guy that's helping that physiology. And our investigator
was dumbfounded. She couldn't say anything because it was the middle
of a study, and she didn't know exactly what was going on in the first
place. That pretty much invalidated that data collection session and
all the data collection sessions on that person before, for the flight
and for before the flight. And the Russians had no difficulty with
that, because, "The guy was uncomfortable, and I'm here to make
him feel better."
We had other instances where the Russian crew member was reluctant
to do procedures that we thought were very benign. For example, one
that's called magnetic resonance imaging, a typical, standard clinical,
very expensive, but a standard clinical technique. There's MRI units
all over, and they use a strong magnetic field to rearrange the molecules
in the body, and then when the molecules go back to their normal state,
they send off radio signals that can be detected that tell you how
much they changed. From that they can build these really wonderful
color pictures essentially of the inside of the body, non-invasively.
It's as close to a "Star Trek" kind of technique as we're
going to get in my lifetime.
One senior cosmonaut refused to get into it because it had radiation
in it. And it didn't have. There's no radiation involved. But he said,
"Yes, you call it magnetic resonance imaging now, but I know
you used to call it nuclear magnetic resonance, and it has the word
'nuclear' in it, and I'm not going to do it." Of course, the
"nuclear" is different, it means the nucleus of the atom,
and not nuclear radiation, nuclear decay. And there was no amount
of negotiation that could change his mind. So we lost a subject from
that investigation, a fairly important investigation.
Through a set of instances not like the first one, but like the second
one where cosmonauts would arbitrarily draw lines in the sand and
say that certain things were possible, or certain things were not
possible, or things were too risky, I think we came to understand
that they were negotiating not with us but with each other, because
there was a transfer of funds involved. Unlike the American astronauts
who show up as directed to do the studies, and there's no hint of
compensation for the study, the cosmonauts were expecting to be paid
for their participation. And if they weren't, then their managers
were expecting to be paid. And other people's managers were expecting
to be paid, too. There was this 400 million dollars that supposedly
had gotten transferred to the Russian program as part of the Phase
One effort. That got transferred in chunks, and those chunks were
anxiously awaited by the Russians, because they had mouths to feed
and houses to build and cars to buy, and things like that.
So I don't understand all the details, but I have now come to accept
the fact that those kind of things, those negotiation sessions, were
mostly about money, and they may be looking me in the eye and shaking
their finger at me and saying, "You do not do this," or,
"You cannot do this," or, "That is not authorized,"
but they're really talking to the guys on the other side of them.
They're saying, "We, Star City, think that we ought to be getting
a bigger chunk of the money than Energia has got," or IBMP is
saying, "Look, we're not getting any of the money at all. You
guys have gotten all the money, and we're trying to pay our staffs
and do the science that you guys are taking advantage of," but
they're talking to the American across the table.
As the American, I would frequently take offense or be baffled or
feel guilty, because I wasn't understanding what he was trying to
tell me. So there's lots of that kind of thing going on, and I can
still look back at historical records or anecdotes, or stories of
negotiations and see, "Ah, well, see, that's when they were yelling
at the Americans because they weren't getting the money that Energia
promised them." So there's lots of that kind of stuff.
It's difficult for me to separate out what I learned in Phase One
Mir 18 versus Phase One Mir 21, or the other flights, just because
the characters changed and the topics changed, but the emphasis always
seemed to be the same. Toward the end of our negotiations, toward
the end of my involvement over a year ago now in the Mir Program,
I used to go into these negotiation sessions not as a lead, but as
a listener for the science, knowing in general what the pattern of
the response of the process was going to be. We were going to make
a request which we thought was eminently realistic, the Russians are
going to say, "Oh, it's very interesting, we have to discuss,"
and they're going to come back with a list of demands that seem to
be irrelevant at the very best.
Another very interesting phenomenon that I did not understand until
somebody explained it to me later is that this whole idea of a zero-sum
gain, if the Russians--I hate to generalize. I hate to besmirch a
lot of honest, noble Russians, but my understanding is if they have
to give up on something, that means that they expect something else.
So there was a process, and I think the thing was that dealing with
the data from the sensors on the Priroda module, the recently launched
Priroda module, the Earth resources module, we had agreed with the
Russians that a lot of the data to be coming from those sensors were
going to be shared with the Americans who were co-investigators or
principal investigators for those investigations requiring certain
scans of certain parts of the Earth, and certain wavelengths to get
the information the investigators required.
The Russians took a long, long time to give us that data. They kept
saying, "All the things are not calibrated," or, "They're
not functioning correctly, and we don't have plan for this. [Or,]
we're not sure that really was part of the negotiation." They
eventually, after months of repeated meetings and negotiations, they
eventually said, "Okay, we're going to give you that." Almost
the next thing they said was, "But we're not going to have somebody
participate in some medical study that we've agreed to," essentially.
So they gave us something, but then they took something back, because
the books had to balance. There's "If we give you something,
well, we have to get something back, and here's something we're not
too crazy about, we're doing it as a favor to you, so we're not going
to do it anymore." We were sort of stunned. We were nudging each
other, saying, "See, zero-sum gain. They gave us something, they
took something away." That really sort of typified--that sort
of set in my opinion of the process of negotiating with the Russians.
I've read articles in Air and Space magazine about the loan of the
Tu-144, the Russian supersonic airplane, to NASA for research, and
I read the story of their negotiations, and I said, "Yes, change
the names, and the policies and the plans are the same." I hear
about [Vice President] Al Gore talking to [Viktor] Chernomyrdin about
negotiating things, and I know what's going on. I just know how come
things don't work.
Another example, early in the program, and I guess consistently throughout
the program, we had a tough time getting our hardware through Russian
Customs. I still get a cold feeling in my stomach when I think about
the Customs desk at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, because I know
it's just as likely that we can go through completely unhindered or
we can be stopped and the hardware impounded for weeks and weeks and
weeks. Data-collection hardware going over there to collect data on
cosmonauts. Doesn't matter. The hardware's impounded.
We worried and complained about that, and complained through our management,
and I guess, eventually--it took a lot longer than it seemed to need--the
complaints seemed to filter up to the point where I would hear on
the news reports that Al Gore was going to talk to Chernomyrdin about
Customs and getting stuff in to the country. Then they'd have their
little tête-à-tête, and they'd smile and shake
hands, and Al Gore would say, "Well, fixed that one. It's solved.
No problems." And it didn't make any difference, because one
level below Chernomyrdin, nobody heard or nobody cared.
That was an interesting phenomenon, too, was that we were frequently
told by the working-level troops at Star City or at IBMP or someplace
that whatever agreement we'd made to get whatever data we thought
we needed, whatever resources, or whatever services, "Oh, that
was signed at too high a level. How can you expect us to know about
that? That wasn't our level. That was two management levels above
us, so there's no way we would know about that." There was very
definitely on many occasions a lack of downward migration of data,
of agreements. Somebody may sign on a piece of paper and say, "Okay,
I agree. I finally agree with all of your negotiations." It's
like he folded it up and put it in his pocket and go home, and that
would be the end of it. He had his piece of paper with his name on
it, but the next level down didn't. If the next level down got any
of these documents, they always seemed to be two or three revs out
of date: the old version, the version that we don't want anymore because
there's mistakes in it, or we can't do that, or something.
Another lesson that I think we learned--I suspect you've heard all
this from John Uri before--another lesson that we learned is that
you never give your Russian counterpart a document unless it's the
final document. You don't give him a draft, because that draft ends
up institutionalized. The first document they get, they take as the
document. If second and third versions come along, they say, "I've
already got that," and they throw it away, or they give it to
somebody else who takes that as their version. "Look, I've got
an extra copy of this. There may be some differences, but it's not
important. Here's your copy."
So you may be dealing with somebody, number one, that's got a document
that's out of date, because we at NASA believe in killing many trees,
as often as possible, and making as many versions of a document as
can physically be run through the Xerox machine. Then you have the
Russian that got [what he believes is] the one and only original document,
somebody else may have a second rev or a version of the first that's
badly copied and unreadable, or has pages missing, and then you're
trying to negotiate based on what your current thinking of the document
is, with people who don't think there is a different version of the
document. Like I said, I can see evidence of that, with hindsight,
in a lot of other things that NASA has negotiated with the Russians.
The Russians are good negotiators, we're bad negotiators. We may be
getting better, but the Russians aren't getting worse. They're still
getting better, too. They're very, very smart. They're very smart
people, collectively and individually, very smart and very focused,
and they know exactly [what] it is they want, and they know what we
have. They know what we have, and they know what they want, and they
know how much we're going to give them. There's really no mystery
to them. They know if they persist--and they're very persistent--they're
going to get what they want. If they give us something, it's pretty
much out of the goodness of their heart.
Wright: You mentioned that every detail on every science project and
that was done, but did you also have to negotiate for efforts that
dealt directly with Norm, or with any of the other astronauts, or
the Mir residents as you were coming through, or even of the other
folks from NASA that were over in Russia? Did you have to do negotiations
and help support the team effort that was over there as well?
Charles: Yes, I did on a couple of ways. The way that I can think
of right now is during Norm's flight I was, like I said, Peggy Whitson's
alternate, and Peggy was the ops lead, because it was an all life
sciences kind of mission. We were Project Science. Peggy was the ops
lead for most of Norm's flight, and when she needed a break, I went
over there for six weeks as the ops lead in the TsUP, in the consultants'
room. We had the MOD folks along as sort of observers just to sort
of take notes and see how things were done. It was very interesting
that later the role was sort of reversed, and MOD was the ops lead,
was telling us how things have always been done. That was kind of
amusing to me, because I'd taught this guy how to do a lot of it.
At one point I was amused because Victor Blagov called me in, and
I took some of the MOD folks with me, and then I said, "Don't
say anything. Just listen. Let me do the talking." Again, very
ironic in light of later events. But he was asking my permission to
have Norm Thagard involved in doing some switch throws during the
EVA that the other cosmonauts were doing in flight. I was thinking,
"Of course Norm's going to do that. We're there to learn, and
you're not going to stop Norm," but he had to go through the
formality of asking the senior NASA guy at the moment in the building
if it was okay. So I said, "Well, it's probably going to be okay,
but I have to check." So that was my one instance of negotiating
for the entire team, I think.
But there were daily, almost daily, negotiations with the time-liners,
for example, getting the time-line plan for the following week, and
then revisions to the time-line as things broke or things get didn't
get done or other things came up. There was a formalized process with
Nadia. Nadia Salmatieva was her name. Nadia was the “time-line
lady,” and she would write out the time-line on this huge long
piece of paper for the week, and we'd go over day by day and discuss
it. I think Tuesdays or something was the day that she had to come
in and talk to us, if she can get it ready for the rest of the week
for the next week.
So there was that kind of ongoing negotiation, where the mission science
rep at TsUP would have the list of activities to be performed, the
times they were supposed to be performed, to work with Nadia to get
that stuff time-lined, and we did that. Mission Science* did that
for most of the increments until the MOD folks realized that they
were being time-lined by someone that wasn't an FAO and wasn't an
MOD person, and, "We can't let that go on!" So they MOD
folks nudged us aside and said, "We'll take care of this from
now on. We'll take your inputs, but we'll be talking to Nadia."
* “Mission Science” was responsible for the scientific
content of each mission. John Uri was the Phase 1 Mission Scientist,
and I was the Mission Scientist for NASA Increments 4 and 5 under
That was kind of funny, because the Russians also are strong believers
in personal relationships. So Nadia would look for the mission science
folks she has been dealing with, and wonder who this other guy is
and why he's insisting on talking. So there's always that kind of
thing. The Russians are very much one-on-one kind of people. I think
John Blaha made some comments about dealing with Russians one on one
versus two on one, versus many on one, or many on many. There's different
ways the Russians deal with large or small groups of people in private
or public settings. So there's lessons to be learned about getting
just day-to-day kind of things done in that regard.
So that was an example, I think, of my involvement in negotiating
larger activities when I was representing mission science there in
the TsUP, and that was the second six-week rotation when I was doing
that. There was a lot of that broad purview being focused onto specific
time-line events and time-line activities.
Wright: What about when you were back here? How much were you able
to support the team that was over in Russia?
Charles: Well, having been over there for extended periods and over
here for extended periods, I would try to do everything I could to
support them, and it was never enough. I knew from experience [while
I was] over there that the folks over here were trying, but it never
seemed to be enough. The answers always seemed to be late and wrong.
For example, a crew member would call down during a com pass and saying,
"Do I flip the switch up or down?" "The light doesn't
go on when I flip it. What do I do?" Of course, we wouldn't have
the answer, wouldn't know the answer in most cases. We'd have to call
back to the States, but there was this nine-hour time difference,
and usually when we got our calls it was midnight in the States, so
we'd call the folks in mission control here, and they would try to
find the discipline lead for that question, and then the discipline
lead would try and find the engineer, the engineer would have to call
the technician. So in some cases it was hours and in some cases it
was weeks before we got an answer.
So I guess the answer to your question is that the folks here, like
myself, would always try to be helpful and try to be supportive of
the operational things in TsUP at Moscow. Many times, I think, the
impression was that it was not helpful. I know my impression was the
folks back in the States were not helpful when I was over there. And
when I was over here, I knew we were working as hard as we could to
get the answers, and why are those folks in TsUP so impatient? Don't
they know how long it takes to get answers?
I think that was a real educational or enlightening experience, too,
was to see how slow we were in getting answers. A lot of it was also
the problem with the NASA and MOD mentality. If there's a problem
on the Shuttle, immediately an entire army goes off in multiple directions
and try and figure why that widget is colored green instead of blue,
and why the switches don't feel the same way when you flip--lots of
effort devoted immediately.
Part of that was the American on the Mir had that same attitude, having
flown the Shuttle before, and the two cosmonauts, were used to working
with the Russian system, were aware that answers didn't have to come
immediately, because, "We're going to be here tomorrow, and we'll
be here next week. What's the big deal?"
A lot of the Americans had that culture shock with the Russians in
TsUP about the same kind of thing. It was, "What's the rush?"
The Russians will say, "What's the rush? They're going to be
there tomorrow." Like an American will call down with a problem
with the camera or videocamera, I think, is one instance. The Russians
say, "Oh, yes, I think we have the manual around here someplace.
We'll dig it out for you."
And the Americans say, "Okay."
And the Russians will say, "Well, not right now. Later, tomorrow,
next week, after the weekend, something. We'll get it for you. It's
no big deal."
The Americans say, "Oh, no, you don't understand. The astronaut
wants the answer. That means that the next time he comes on the loop,
I have to have the answer."
The Russians say, "Why? He's not going anywhere."
So there's a lot of this kind of culture shock. That was the difficulty,
I think, of us supporting them, the Americans in TsUP, and then supporting
the mission, because we all had different ideas of what the time frame
was for an answer that was required. So like I say, I know when I
was over there I thought that Americans were completely unresponsive,
and when I was over here trying to be responsive, I was wondering,
"What's the big deal? Why are they in such a hurry? The cosmonauts
aren't going anywhere."
Wright: We understand from Dr. [Michael] Barratt that every time he
called you, you'd pick up the phone and give him the same jovial answer.
Do you remember those times? Because he said no matter what the time
of day, no matter what the situation as, that he'd call you and you'd
pick up the phone, and you'd say, "Yes, commissioner."
Charles: [Laughter] That's right. The funny thing--he said that. That's
great. I'm glad he remembers that. During Mir 18, Norm Thagard's flight,
Barratt would go down to the floor [of the control room]. The consultants'
room was sort of up above the balcony and back down a hall, but every
time Mir 18 came over the horizon, it was time for one of the com
sessions, Barratt or one of the other flight surgeon would go down
and would be our CIC, our Cap Com, would go down to the floor and
be waiting to talk to Norm during the ten seconds or fifteen seconds
that they gave him to talk to the American.
There were these old phones, no dials, it was just the old pick up
the phone and talk kind of thing, maybe one or two buttons, I forget
now. It looked just like the old phone under the head of Shakespeare
in Bruce Wayne's study on the old TV show [Batman] on the commissioner's
desk. So we'd be listening to the air-to-ground and hear Norm say,
"I'm having trouble with such and so. Can you tell me what it
was?" I would hear Barratt say, "Standby. I'll check, talk
in Russian or something, talk to the Russians." And the phone
would ring. Of course I knew who it was. And just this mental image
of the phone ringing, I always imagined myself as Batman. When the
phone range I'd say, "Yes, Commissioner," or "Yes,
Batman," whatever the mood was in the moment. That always seemed
to catch Mike off guard and gave him a chuckle, and he'd try to remember
what it was he was going to ask. We'd say, "You were probably
going to ask about the cooling loop," or something like that.
That was, I think, an example of the kind of "us against them"
camaraderie. We felt--I know I felt, I shouldn't speak for the rest
of the team, but I know I felt very much like a stranger in a strange
land when I was in Moscow. I really admire and respect folks like
Mike Barratt and Dave Ward, the two first flight surgeons who threw
themselves into the process vigorously, not as docs, not as flight
surgeons, but as our liaisons to Star City and to the Russian process.
They learned Russian. Mike Barratt, I think, speaks colloquial vernacular
Russian probably as well as any American. Dave Ward seemed to struggle
with it, but certainly got his point across. And they also tried to
understand not just the medical thing and the astronaut, but understand
the entire payload. They were our liaison. Many times they knew more
about the payload than we did, or knew more about the experiment than
we did, so they were very, very useful as resources.
For example, when I was in the TsUP during Mir 18, I may have been
sort of the ops lead, although we didn't really call it that, I was
just the lead, the head of the American team, but we really sort of
had parallel things going. Barratt was the flight surgeon beholden
to no one, and I was the science lead beholden to no one, and we tried
not to step on each other's toes, and we also tried to support each
So it was very, very easy to support folks like Mike Barratt and Dave
Ward, because they were so enthusiastic. Nothing ever got them down,
and they always understood what was going on, or at least understood
better than anybody else what was going on, and they were always a
good source of information and a good source of insight into what
was happening. So it was easy to have that kind of easy, silly camaraderie.
When I'm comfortable in a situation, that's always what I try to do,
too. I try to keep things light, because there's so much heavy stuff
going on, that it's kind of fun to sort of catch a guy off guard,
and you give him a break when Norm Thagard, for example, was calling
down and complaining, as Norm seemed to do a lot on Mir 18 about things,
and Mike was trying to be conciliatory and trying to assuage his concerns,
and tell Norm it really is all right. Norm was saying, "No, it's
not all right. It's bad. You haven't done what you promised me you
were going to do," and things like that. So I was glad to help
Mike. I'm glad Mike remembers the lighter moments. I hope he remembers
me always in those ways and not the times I failed him in other areas.
That was kind of fun, though, because that phone just reminded me
so much. It was 1960s technology, and it would sort of blurble or
bleep or ring, or some sort of annoying sound. All I could think was
that little sound bite from the 1960s TV show. so it was kind of fun.
Wright: That was, of course, the first experiences, but as you worked
through the years and even though there were a few years, I'm sure
they were busy years, how was it different for example, the last mission?
What do you see as some of the changes, or were the experiences vastly
different, or were some of the same situations existing as you moved
through at that time?
Charles: Well, the first mission I supported was the Mir 18 mission
in '95. That was Norm Thagard's three-month flight, and that's the
mission I supported in Moscow. The second to last time I spent six
weeks in Moscow was for John Blaha's mission in '96. So it was only
a year different, but by the second wave, by the NASA-Mir Program,
which was different from the Shuttle-Mir Program, an arbitrary distinction,
but an important distinction, nonetheless, it was the MOD-run show,
and we had a cast of thousands. At one point we had, I forget, four
ops leads: one prime, one alternate, one in training, and one sort
of rotating out. It was one of those cases where it was almost comical.
The old saying about too many chefs--too many of these testosterone-charged
guys and women trying to be in charge and trying to make snap decisions,
and show how they can be good flight directors, and things like that.
A very visible, very important job they were doing. They were all
very smart, very good, very capable at it, but their inclination always
seemed to be more, "Got to do something right away, and it's
got to be quick, and it's got to be fast, and it's got to be good,
and we've got to shine." They seemed to be inclined to make snap
decisions based on what we science types thought were inappropriate
understandings or inadequate understandings.
It was probably a reiteration and microcosm, of the old engineering-versus-science
mentality. Engineers, especially the MOD engineers, do a lot right
away, fast, and then move on to the next thing, and the scientists
have to think about things. There's a shade of grey. The engineers
says, "Yes or no?" and the [scientist] answers, "Maybe."
That just makes them nuts, because, "Maybe? How do you put a
'maybe' on an integrated circuit? There is no ‘maybe;’
it's ‘yes’ or it's ‘no.’ Either it's working
or it's not working, or you can get all your data, or you can't get
any of your data." I said, "You can get some of your data
some of the time. It's fuzzy logic."
I kept calling it fuzzy logic, because I figured that was an engineering
term they would understand, but there was a real difference there
between when we were doing only the life sciences experiments, only
on Mir 18, and we were sort of the entire show, and there was maybe
three of us in the consultants' room, and the time when there was
maybe twelve people in the same consultants' room, fighting over chairs,
over the same table, with largely NASA-imposed reporting and other
time-line schedule pressures.
On Mir 18, once a week we called in and gave a report. On Mir--I guess
it was Mir 22--it was Blaha's flight, there was daily reporting and
multiple copies of daily reports, and reviews of daily reports, and
multiple telecons each week, and just more and more interest, and
more visibility, and more responsibility back to the folks in Houston.
So it was really more high paced and more distant. And there was more
science in more areas, more disciplines being covered, so it was more
responsibility back to different organizations in the U.S., back to
Ames and back to Marshall in Huntsville, and Lewis. I don't guess
we had any Langley stuff. But lots of stuff like that. So there was
just a higher paced, more hectic kind of thing. It does have the advantage
of focus, though. That was probably the only nice thing about the
two six-week periods I spent in Moscow, was the fact that I had one
job to do, and not like I do here, I've got three or four different
You have one job, you go in, the job for today is to get the time
line ready. So you go in today and you work with Nadia, the time-line
lady, and you work with the Americans, and take all the E-mails, and
sift through them and find things. At the end of the day you have
a time line ready, and then you can go home and sleep. Then tomorrow
you come in and do another job. You have to get a radiogram ready
for procedures, something like that.
It was like a certain clarity of purpose and a certain singleness
of focus that was lacking in the States. So that was a common feature
to both of my experiences in Moscow. Otherwise, the first flight,
all medical stuff, mostly medical stuff, Norm Thagard, and we were
in charge. The second time it was, "Oh, yeah. We've done this
a lot of times before, here's our multiple procedures for doing what
you all used to do," sort of off the cuff, and it was different
experiments, lots of disciplines, and this huge MOD overlay on top,
and then the Russians have gotten wise to us, too, so they understood.
They could slow us down by asking for copies of documents and procedures
and stuff. So there was lots of negotiations and arguments that way.
It was really sort of like apples and oranges, almost, with the few
Wright: Most of what we've talked about, of course, has affected you
professionally, but was this your first time to go to Russia when
you started with this program, or had you been there before?
Charles: No, I had not been there before. I'd always been left behind
as unnecessary on previous trips, but with the start of the NASA-Mir
Program, the Shuttle-Mir Program, I guess, over the course of my--I
forget how many years it was I was traveling to Russia. I made thirteen
trips to Russia, and that was plenty. It's been, I guess, about a
year and a half, coming up on two years, since I've last been to Russia,
and I really don't mind. I don't miss it.
There's a few small things I miss, like a certain woodcarver I used
to see out the flea market, who always had copies of statuettes of
cosmonauts, and I'd always buy his newest cosmonaut. And believe it
or not, I enjoyed a lot of the food, especially when I was taken to
people's apartments and houses and they put on big spreads of their
own local, regional specialties. I always enjoyed that.
But a lot of the stuff, going into the nineteen-hour flight [to get]
there and the nineteen-hour flight back [to the States], the airport,
the silliness of exchanging money, and the general unpleasant demeanor
of a lot of the folks I came into contact with personally and professionally,
I don't miss it at all.
The first opportunity came as a part of the setting of the NASA-Mir
Program. I hadn't been as part of any of the other working groups
before that. I made several trips that were just, I guess, one- or
two-week trips before I made the six-week trip over there in '95.
Wright: Do you feel through your efforts there's a time that you remember
that you would say is the most significant accomplishment, or the
most significant contribution that you were able to make as part of
this program? One negotiation was the best, or one answer that you
were able to give that seemed to solve a problem?
Charles: I hope I solved a lot of problems. I can't tell you any specific
instance where I did that. I hope that I did so by presenting what
I thought was a reasoned and reasonable American position in the negotiations.
I hope I was credible to the Russians. I know I established, I think,
good relationships with my counterparts, at least in the life sciences
area. I have very fond memories of them personally and professionally.
I hope that I was able to be credible inasmuch as I would draw lines
in the sand that I would not back away from, because to do so would
render the experiment meaningless or undoable or something.
I recall one instance in negotiations over here [along] with my American
counterparts in the life sciences area where the two or three factions,
I think there was two people from IBMP, and one from Star City, and
probably not an Energia rep at that point, who were negotiating with
us about, I think, a sleep study, and it was a study of some of the
characteristics of sleep in extended weightlessness. It was a peer-reviewed,
approved investigation. We had promised these investigators we would
get their data. We had given them [the Russians] money to get them
ready, and there was some difficulty with that. I can't tell you exactly
what it was. It seemed to be compensation to the cosmonauts for this,
and the Russians kept talking about “motivation” for the
cosmonauts to do this study. I'd say, "What do you mean?"
knowing what they meant, because we talked about it before.
They'd say, "Well, the cosmonauts have to be motivated."
I'd say, "How so?"
Eventually it came out that the Russians hadn't seen the money that
was promised to them. Energia had the money, but it was not getting
down to IBMP, and they were out of money, and they had been out of
money for months and years, and nobody being paid, and they couldn't
run these--they had to borrow other facilities from other institutions
to do some of this stuff, and they couldn't pay those people.
At one point I did my best Nikita Khrushchev banging the shoe on the
table thing. I said, "Look, that is not my problem. That is your
problem. This study will be done. I will not accept no for an answer.
This study will be done, and you will solve this problem. You will
talk to each other, you will get the money, you will talk to somebody
else. I don't want to hear about this problem anymore. You will fix
your problem." And I got up and I left, and I had no intention
of going back at all to talk to those people. They were scurrying
around, because that was not me. That was not typical of me, but I
was really just “up to here” with it at that point. All
very apologetic. I walked around outside the building, fuming for,
I don't know, forty-five minutes or two hours or two days. I'm no
sure how long it was. Eventually, one of the Americans came up and
said, "I think they want to talk to you."
I said, "I'm not talking to them until they solve the problem."
"Well, we've moved into other topics, so you can come back in
But that changed my perception of the negotiations. I think that changed
their perception of me, because I never went back to being as chummy
and friendly and all that sort of stuff. I was always much more reserved
after that, because I wanted them to understand that at least one
American wasn't going to be pushed around like they were used to pushing
around other Americans. I know other Americans have tried to make
similar shows of strength in similar ways. Some folks may say it's
pointless and it's counterproductive, and other folks say it was the
right idea, the wrong way to do it, but I think we all had to sort
of decide on our own what the best way for the circumstance was.
I know, after that, I was not interested in negotiations much after
that. I was pretty much interested in saying, "Here's our experiment.
Somebody signed off on this experiment. How are we going to implement
this? I don't want to hear about funding, I don't want to hear about
motivation, I don't want to hear about difficulties you have. I want
to hear about getting this experiment implemented."
Shortly after that, I'm not sure how soon after that, I moved on to
the Mission Science thing where I was out of that particular negotiation.
I think the guy that followed me had his own way of exerting his influence
and making his presence known. So that was an example, I think, of
my imprint on the way that some of the negotiations were done.
Wright: Do you feel that the science world, the science investigators,
the science arena has benefited from all of this effort from people
like you that get involved in the program?
Charles: I think it has benefited. I think that investigators--probably
out there you'll find some that think that they have been poorly served.
I know when I was an investigator and having to work through all these
intermediaries just to the American side when I was, for example,
an investigator on the Shuttle flights, having to work through several
intermediaries to get to the astronauts on our own Shuttle and our
own national space program, I felt like there was an awful lot lost
in the translation from this party to that party. I have no doubt
that there are investigators in universities out there in other disciplines,
for example, biology or crystal growth or whatever, that think that
this biologist, this life science guy, John Charles, who was doing
our negotiations for us, just didn't really grasp the big picture,
and really didn't give us as much as he could have. I also believe
that we gave as much as we physically were able to give, as much as
could be gotten from the Russians.
I think that's probably typical of any scientist’s involvement
in any space flight program. Like I say, when I was a scientist, I
always felt the intermediaries were doing a bad job. When I was an
intermediary, I'm thinking I'm doing the very best job possible. I
think we intermediaries, like the folks in the Mission Science Office
for the NASA-Mir Program and in the Mission Science Office, whatever
it's called, for the ISS [International Space Station] Program will
always be considered to be doing a bad job by both ends of the extreme.
The scientists will always say, "Why aren't you getting me more
of what I need?" The planners and the MOD folks and the crews
will always be saying, "Why are you making so many demands on
us? Why can't you take what we give you and be happy with it?"
For each of these, we have to wear the other hat. So we're talking
to the crews, we have to have the appearance of these fuzzy-thinking,
starry-eyed, egghead scientists who always want one thing more, and
when we turn around and face exactly the other direction and talk
to the scientists, we have to have sort of a steely gaze and the indifferent
attitude of the planners who say, "Look, we've given you everything
we can logically give you. You're asking for too much."
For example, the sleep studies that came into the Mir Program that
I was responsible for fitting in, at one point they wanted fifty--five-zero--consecutive
nights of monitoring. I'll pause to let that sink in. Fifty nights
of monitoring in fight. They ended up getting, I think, thirteen.
And thirteen, eventually, I think, became five on a few occasions.
That was a huge, huge undertaking for the cosmonauts. But, see, the
scientists would walk away saying, "Oh, those NASA folks, they
don't have the foggiest idea of science, good, meaningful science,
like we do, because they wouldn't give us our fifty nights of monitoring.
They had to settle for five."
And the cosmonauts are saying, "One night of monitoring is too
We had whittled it down. We, the Mission Science folks, had whittled
it down to thirteen before we even talked to the cosmonauts or the
astronauts about it, and they said, "Thirteen nights of monitoring!
You're out of your flippin' gourd! There was no way I want to do it,
and even if I did, there was no way you could interpret it. There's
no value to that. We'll give you one, occasionally. One person, one
time, one flight."
So we have to go back and say, "That's not really meaningful.
We need to get more. These PIs are being funded, and they're peer-reviewed,
and you really don't have a choice about this. Either you don't do
the experiment or you do the experiment, but you always have the option
not to participate. Nobody can force you to do this stuff, but I'm
going to tell your boss if you don't, because these guys are being
funded, and, yes, you have the right, but you've got to keep the big
picture in mind."
And eventually the crew members, we got a few crew members that did
some portion of it. It's a very complicated protocol, for example,
the sleep study, [very complicated,] involving lots of electrodes
in the head, and lots of logging and lots of tests, laptop-computer
kind of performance tests before and after the sleep bout. These things
always sort of sometimes got forgotten, like, "Oh, I forgot to
write my dream log," or, "I forgot to take the performance
test," or, "Gee, we lost pressure in the cabin so I didn't
get around to doing this thing. Hope you don't mind."
So the data set that was handed back to the scientist’s was
never what they expected. I can only hope that they were able, with
the benefit of hindsight and reflection over time, to realize that
what they got was really pretty much the most significant data set
every collected in that environment.
Interestingly enough, I always have recollections about the sleep
study, because I am a firm believer in the importance of circadian
rhythmicity and sleep, and well-rested crew members. From my Shuttle
experience, I know after one Shuttle mission, I think STS-26, I was
at the landing site to do some cardiovascular measurements, and I
recall watching the crew come down the ladder from the Shuttle, the
stairway from the Shuttle, all bright and bouncy and happy and victorious.
And as they came into the clinic and the door shut behind them, I
remember I watched the color drain out of their faces, and the vigor
went out of them. They were exhausted. At that point, I thought, "Am
I measuring the effects of exhaustion or the effects of cardiovascular
changes? Probably exhaustion. That is really not what I'm here to
measure. I'm here to measure the effects of space flight on the cardiovascular
system. But these guys are exhausted. We're working them too hard."
At that point, that's really the clear demarcation in my mind of the
importance of making sure the crew members are well rested, well nourished,
and well hydrated, and happy and productive in space.
As a scientist, as a PI, I would always say, "Public affairs?
That ought to be time they're doing my experiment, not talking to
schoolkids, or talking to the President, or looking out the window.
That's nuts! They have eight hours of sleep a night, which is probably
too much. We ought to be making them work from the moment they wake
up until the moment they go to sleep." And at that point I sort
of became a convert to the astronaut position, which is, "You
don't make anybody else work that hard for four days in a row, or
eight days in a row, whatever a Shuttle flight is. How can you reasonably
expect us to?"
I say, "Oh, yeah? But every else is not in the space Shuttle
flying above the Earth at huge expense to the government, with the
only opportunity to make these measurements. Of course I'm going to
make you work that hard, that long."
Then I finally realized, and I know I'm not the first one to realize
it, I know lots and lots of folks realized it before, but it finally
became clear to me that people that are working that hard aren't going
to be good subjects for the medical studies anyhow. They're exhausted.
They're going to make mistakes. The data you get back, even if they
don't make mistakes, is not going to be what you're looking for. So
it became clear, especially on the longer flights, that we needed
to be doing more about sleep quality and normal work cycles, and making
sure they're healthy and happy and productive in flight. So I've been
a big believer in the sleep studies, both the ones we did on the Mir
Program and the ones that we're doing on the Shuttle now [which I
am overseeing in one of] my other assignments.
Those were always the hardest ones to defend, because, by definition,
they impact sleep. Astronauts say, "If I'm having trouble sleeping,
your experiment doesn't help. If you acknowledge that I'm having difficulty
sleeping, why do you insist I do this experiment?" And there's
that convenient "can't make an omelet without breaking eggs"
argument. "I can't make you better until we understand what's
wrong." And astronauts don't like that logic. They say, "Look,
it's plenty wrong. Just leave it alone. Don't make it worse."
And the whole idea of making it better by making it worse doesn't
really translate well into astronaut thinking or MOD thinking. So
there's always that ongoing battle about, "One night of sleeping
measurements is all you're going to get."
But the thing I recall about the sleep study on the Mir Program, it
was one of the first bouts of sleeps that, I guess, one of the astronauts
had done it first. Maybe [Jerry] Linenger had done it. But it was
time for one of the cosmonauts to do this sleep monitoring study,
and I think it was the next day after that that he lost control of
the Progress vehicle and it crashed into the Space Station. So people
always said after that, "See, that sleep study is the problem."
Now, it turns out that, in retrospect, the analyses more recently
don't even mention the fact that he did a sleep study. That's always
whispered. But now they say, "Oh, it [had] been months since
he trained, and the hardware wasn't appropriate, and the lighting
was bad, and the simulation showed it was going to happen anyhow.
In fact, the previous instance had gone wrong." But they always
say, "Don't forget that sleep study, too." So you're sort
of scarred, you're sort of tarred by that. That was on my watch, so
that was one of the things I was pushing real vigorously, was the
sleep study. It's hard to keep your credibility when an astronauts
ruins a mission because of your damn science.
Wright: How dare they, right?
Charles: Yes, that's right. "Just leave us alone and let us fly
our mission, and don't worry abut your damn science."
Wright: I have to make the statement that listening to you, there
weren't many days that were boring while you were a participant in
Charles: Yes. There was nothing boring about the program, unless I
just chose not to let it bother me at some point. There's lots of
non-boring instances. A lot of it might have been boring in the sense
that, "That's another negotiation and I know how it's going to
I fancy that I have this ability, after I get to know a situation,
to sort of see it as theater. I know in a lot of the meetings that
I've sat in in JSC [Johnson Space Center], when I get to know who
the players are around the table, I know who's going to misunderstand
something and who's going to have a different agenda. I can sort of
almost, if not predict what the interaction are around the table,
I can sort of understand them as they unfold. I've explained to people,
"She didn't hear what was said, and he thinks they're saying
something else. Now watch. He's going to react differently, because
he was thinking of something else," and then it'll sort of happen.
So the negotiations would sort of get to be that way. I would sort
of know when the Russians were going to come in wanting money, and
they're going to say, "We can't do the sleep study," or,
"We can't do the MRI study," or something. You sort of have
to watch it unfold, and it usually unfolds very slowly, so you sort
of start waiting for the other shoe to drop, and, "Okay, let's
get to the part where you say you can't do the study so we can address
Wright: Cut to the chase.
Charles: Cut to the chase, yes. And the Russians love to make speeches.
They love to speechify. One of the first guys that I dealt with in
Mir 18, my cardiovascular counterpart, would always speechify. He
was one of the most annoying people I've met. He was one of the least
well liked Russians amongst the Russians as well as the Americans.
The translators would say, "Oh, we can't get started yet. He
hasn't annoyed everybody in the room three times."
But this guy, when I would ask him a question I would say, "Do
you have data on heart rate in space flight?"
He would say, "Well, the Russian space program, which began with
the launch of Yuri Gagarin in 1961, as the first Russian to fly in
space aboard the Vostok 1 vehicle, which was launched by an R7 booster
out of Baikonur, the first of many glorious successes in the Russian
program, the second of which was Gherman Titov in Vostok 2,"
and he would give me a litany of things that dealt almost not at all
with the question. At the end of it, he would say, "Of course
I am a qualified surgeon, unlike you, so I know a great deal more
about the human body and its responses to space flight."
I'd say, "Yes. Can you tell about heart rate in space flight?"
"I just did." So there was that kind of response. That was
probably peculiar to this guy, but that is not unusual in the Russian
So that's the kind of thing I guess I don't really miss about the
dealings with the Russians, but they all have to speechify. Bless
their hearts, when they're having meetings, everybody gets a chance
to make a speech. So if you've got a group meeting where they're trying
to decide is it safe to fly or safe to do an EVA, are we going to
accept this experiment, at least one rep from every organization has
to get up and make a speech about the glorious days of Yuri Gagarin
and how "We've solved many problems and the Americans were just
newcomers at this, and perhaps they'll learn after experience with
That guy will sit down and the next guy will stand up and say, "I
agree with my comrade. We've been doing this since Yuri Gagarin, and
the Americans are wet behind the ears, and by the way, we haven't
seen our money yet." And just all these extraneous things. That
sort of filters into, I think, the toasting they do as well, with
vodka. There's always florid fancy toasts.
I'm not sure if this relates to your question anymore, but I remember
one experience getting ready for Mir 18. The experiment was to use
the lower body negative pressure device, which was my area of specialization.
We were going to use the Russian “Chibis” suit. They call
it pneumatic trousers. It's rigid pants that you can decompress inside,
and it sucks some of the blood down and makes the body react [really,
the cardio-vascular system] as if the body is standing upright in
gravity. You can do this in weightlessness so you can stress the gravity
functions of the body in weightlessness.
But we finally got a chance, finally convinced the Russian specialist
in Star City that it was okay for us to come to his lab, and okay
for us to see this secret hardware that he's got that we're going
to have to use, and had it demonstrated for us. As we were leaving
the room, I said "I appreciate your showing us this, and we look
forward to working with you." He said something in parting, something
along the lines of, "We have learned many things about the human
body in space flight. You, too, must learn those things," and
then he left. It wasn't like, "I will teach you here. Let's be
friends. We'll work together." It was like, "Call me when
you get to be an expert," that sort of thing.
Interestingly enough, this guy turned out to be one of my best friends
on the program, because maybe he had been called out of some other
meeting or something else to come out and talk to this American that
he didn't know and didn't care about. So he had to come in sort of
late and hurriedly to give us this briefing. Later he got involved
in the program with us, and he was one of my best friends and closest
colleagues. So that personal thing, the first meeting was not very
pleasant, but with the repeated meetings we got to be good friends
and colleagues. Now we try and stay in touch as much as possible.
But I always remember that. "You, too, must learn these things."
It wasn't like, "I'll help you." It wasn't like, "Here's
a book, read up on it." It was like, "You, too, must go
off and learn these things, and come back and we'll talk."
Wright: "Call me."
Charles: "Call me. My people will call your people."
Wright: It was on your watch that the collision took place?
Charles: I think it was. Maybe it was a near miss. It's really sad,
because it was only a couple of years ago, but I forget if it was
a near miss or the collision. Let's see. Linenger was the fire, and
Mike Foale was the collision. I was the mission scientist for both
of those. I was over there for--no, I was over there for Blaha's flight,
so I wasn't over there for Linenger's flight. [It's embarrassing.
Wright: One could say it kind of starts running together.
Charles: I never believe anybody else who says, "Gee, I don't
recall if it was the collision or the near miss." But in my case,
I don't remember if it was the collision or the near miss, but I know
that when the collision occurred, it was--yes, that's right, that
was the collision. It was the sleep study. The commander had done
the sleep study.
Wright: How did it affect the science, the collision?
Charles: Good question. That's an excellent point, and I wanted to
make that point. I'm glad you said that. It had the effect of shutting
down the science program, and that was just one example. I mean, the
fire did the same thing, and any time an air-conditioner sprung a
glycol, they did the same thing. I was like the MOD guys would say,
"We've got a problem. Let's shut down the entire science program,
and then we'll decide how to fix the problem."
We would say, "Well, you know, that's nice, except when it's
all said and done, Congress isn't going to ask, 'How many times did
you fix the air-conditioner?' Congress is going to ask, 'Did you cure
cancer? Did you see pictures of Jupiter?' Stuff like that. Why don't
we decide what the problem is and then shut down enough of the science
program to give you the time to fix that problem, but not shut down
all the science, because some of the science can keep going anyhow.
I mean, you've still got to sleep, and we still can make measurements.
You've still got to exercise, we can make measurements on that. Let's
not just throw everything out until you decide at some time, days,
weeks, months in the future, that it's okay to start science again,
because we've got a schedule, we're behind schedule, because of the
last time you did this." So there is this, again, this science
versus engineer, MOD versus mission science kind of different way
of seeing things.
I remember one of the ops leads over here who was rotating back over
here, who took a personal interest in making sure that we scientist
types didn't get too far afield in this emergencies. He kept saying,
"You guys keep wanting to do the science, it's like rearranging
the deck chairs on the Titanic as it's sinking."
I thought, "Well, that's probably a pretty good idea [or analogy]
as far as MOD is concerned. Science is pretty much a time-filling
activity. It's not the important reason. You fly to fly, and, oh,
yes, if you got some spare minutes in flight, then you do some science."
Speaking unfairly, of course, our impression of the MOD folks was
that their idea is to punch holes in the sky. You light a big rocket,
you send the guy up, and he does important heroic things. Then if
he's not busy doing whatever it is that's important and heroic, maybe
he can grow a plant for you or make a sleep measurement or something
like that, but that's really not the reason we're flying. We're flying
because we fly. That always seemed to us to be very, very strong MOD
logic. "We fly because we fly. What's not to understand?"
We'd say, "No, you fly to do things." They'd say, "No,
no, no, no. We do things when we have time."
Of course, we have the other idea that the air-conditioner's broke,
so it gets hot. "Let's do some science." Or you're drifting
out of orientation, "Well, we've got some things you can do without
power. Here's what you can do." Or, the Progress bounced off
a solar panel. "Well, okay, one of the Russians can go do that,
but here's some science we can do in the meantime."
So they'd say, "That's completely unrealistic." And of course
it is unrealistic. You want to make sure the vehicle is not losing
air and not filling up with carbon dioxide before you do your science.
Now, interestingly enough, we had some difficulty explaining that
to some of the American scientists back in the universities and other
places here who perhaps weren't as in tune with the mission as we
were, living with it every moment, but nobody in the science flight
ever argued [or disputed] that the first priority was to keep the
crew alive. You never give up [e.g., “lose”] a crew member
to do science. That's one of those rules that you draw in the sand.
Death is not an acceptable alternative if it means science. So we
understand that. We just didn't feel like the appropriate perspective
was taken. We felt like the perspective was always, the impulse was
always, "Cancel the entire science program until we get this
problem resolved," and the problems were never resolved. There's
always another glycol leak, always another solar power loss, there's
So our concern was, yes, we understood priorities, keep the crew alive,
keep the vehicle intact, keep the pressure up, keep the power coming,
but there are certain things you can sort of interweave in that. Like
maybe two guys can work on the solar cells, because the third guy,
the American's just in the way anyhow. Let him go off and tend to
the plants. We tried to keep that perspective. If they refer to it
as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, that's fine. If that's
a convenient mental image for them, that's okay.
Wright: Were there many deck chairs left after the collision? Were
you able to take what you had and correct the situation?
Charles: On Foale's mission, a lot of the science got canceled. Some
of it did continue. I think some of the biology stuff and the things
that were [mounted] outside [of the station] were exposed to space
environment, of course, continued to work, and through a lot of heroic
efforts of the science folks and the MOD folks, a lot of that stuff
A lot of the experiments that were pretty much written off were recovered
and, I have to say, the Russians on many occasions showed us ways
to do that, too. For example, the greenhouse, the growing of plants
on the Mir, the Russians seemed to have a very strong attachment to,
probably because one of the Russian counterparts was very vigorous
and very forceful and very well liked in the control room, or not
liked, maybe they just did what he wanted to get him out of the room,
but the Russians would always say, "Oh, by the way, even though
we're cutting power back, we have enough power for the greenhouse
to keep running." So the Americans would say, "Okay. Well,
that's a victory. We'll take that."
As I recall, after the difficulties in Foale's flight, we lost a fair
number of scientific objectives, and I can't tell you off the top
of my head now how many and what percentage. I know we went through
a lot of exercises trying to figure out what percentage it was. I
have to say that we were amused that our management was always trying
to find the silver lining. It's a very good feature to have in your
management, especially when they have to go up and talk to Congress.
But they kept saying, "Well, if you gave up that requirement,
then that means it was never really on the books anyhow. So we can
say he got like 100 percent of his stuff done."
And we'd say, "Look, he didn't do half the experiments. Half
the experiments are in the module that's blocked off. You can't say
he did 100 percent of his payload."
"Well, can you say we did 80 percent of his payload?"
"Well, no, because 80 percent of the experiments are locked up."
There is a lot of this. We as a science community felt we had lost
a lot. The management, the MOD folks, and the NASA-Mir program management
felt like a lot was accomplished. I mean, that's sort of like the
glass half empty, the glass half full kind of thing. Given all the
constraints and the difficulties of the mission, yes, a great deal
was accomplished, because at a few points those guys were struggling
to stay alive, so the science really isn't the first priority. Now,
I think if I was to go back and look at the statistics--and John Uri's
probably got a much better handle on this than I do--the NASA 5 flight
probably was one of the ones with the lowest number of accomplished
experiments, just because a lot of them were lost. Nobody can really
blame us for that. But there always seemed to be this interest in
putting the best possible face on, almost to the point where we thought
it was irresponsible. You can't claim victory when victory wasn't
But we had a lot of interesting discussions with our management about
how best to quantify science. Did you get 80 percent of your science?
Well, what does that mean? Every experiment is different. Now, if
80 percent of the plants live, is that 80 percent return? Well, if
80 percent of the plants live but they're sterile, then it's zero
percent; I mean 80 percent green things, but zero percent next generation.
So how do I quantity that? That's one of those fuzzy logic kind of
We eventually, I think, came to a--I forget now. I know at one point
we discussed trying to quantify the number of sessions for the experiments
that were accomplished, and say that 80 percent of the sessions were
done, or something like that, as an indicator. They kept asking, "What
percent of your science was accomplished?" We'd say, "Well,
80 percent of the sessions, 40 percent of the recordings, 16 percent
of viable plants," and give them lots and lots of different ways,
but there's no way--I always wonder at anybody that says they got
such and such a fraction of an indefinable quantity accomplished,
because there's no way to quantify an indefinable kind of a quantity.
A sleep study may be completely lost if you don't get one post-sleep
measurement, for example. But you did 80 percent of the work of it,
or 90 percent, or 99 percent of the work, but you didn't get this
one measurement, so the rest of it is just noise on a tape then. So
is that 100 percent? Is it 99 percent successful? Or is it zero percent
successful? Well, they put an awful lot of work into not getting the
right data. How do you quantify that?
Then different studies, I mean, one experiment you may flip a switch
at the beginning of the mission and turn it off at the end of the
mission, so it's running the entire time. Well, how do you compare
that where you have another study where you have to draw blood samples
four times a day, and spin them down, and freeze them, and then make
sure the freezer stays powered so that when you get back to the ground
those blood samples mean something? How do you compare those apples
So I guess probably Mike Foale's mission is the one that shows the
lowest completion rate of a lot of the investigations just because
a lot of them were lost. A lot of samples were lost that had been
collected ahead of time. But it certainly wasn't due to a lack of
effort on the part of the crew members to do as much as they could,
given the difficulties of the mission. I think, although I left the
program by that time, I think Dave Wolf and Andy Thomas probably had
some of the most successful missions, although Shannon Lucid's and
John Blaha's were also very successful, because they didn't have a
lot of extraordinary difficulties. I think a great deal probably was
learned from Mike Foale and from Jerry Linenger's flights about how
to do missions, and so they certainly should not be minimized in terms
of a wasted mission because you didn't get all the plants grown or
all the crystals grown or something like that. But the science return
from those two missions might be a little bit lower than we might
Wright: I guess most importantly is that the science was able to at
least carry on.
Charles: Yes. I think that's a good point, is that the science program
did continue, and, if anything, we used it as an opportunity to train
the MOD types into what was meaningful, and we also used it as an
opportunity to train the PIs as to what was possible. The PIs hopefully
won't come back with any more fifty nights of recording, and they
will learn to ask for atmospheric composition measurements if they're
concerned about sterility in plants. You hate to think that the program
was mostly pilot studies, because pilot studies by definition are
But on the other hand, if the whole Mir Program in terms of science,
was a pilot study for ISS, making ISS productive, then it's worth
it science-wise. I know for a fact that we got a lot of independently
useful productive scientific objectives met on the Mir Program as
well. So it's a win-win in terms of the science.
The heartaches are very real. I think I remember the heartaches as
much as anything: the collision, the fire, clearing the decks and
trying to fix problems, and debating amongst ourselves and with each
other what the right problems to address were, and things like that.
There's a lot of heartaches, but I think in the final analysis a lot
of meaningful scientific objectives were accomplished. I hope the
investigators agree, and I hope the investigators can get meaningful
publications out of them, and can convince NASA and the public and
the rest of the world that science is useful and meaningful.
Wright: I think this is one point that we all need to remember, just
because the mission may be over but the science is not.
Charles: Well, in a very real sense, the science is not over, because
a lot of the investigators are just now getting, or haven't yet gotten
their final data sets. I think there is still final baseline data
collection on the last cosmonauts that just landed. Then after that,
NASA typically gives the investigators a year of exclusive access
to the results so they can get some initial publications and claim
priority, but in many cases that data is not completely analyzed for
years after that just because it takes a broader view and multiple
perspectives and different rearrangements of many of the results to
make sense of it. So the science program is not just getting geared
up, but it's definitely in full swing at this point. Phase One may
be winding down, or officially over, or whatever, it certainly does
not mean that Phase One science is officially over.
Wright: Paul, anything you'd like to ask?
Rollins: What brought you to NASA? With your interest and your background,
I assume you could have worked almost anywhere. What made you choose
Charles: You're very generous. I tailored my education to come to
NASA. From the earliest age I wanted to be an astronaut, and since
I always seem to be just above the height limit, no matter what it
was, I was always just above the height limit, I realized early on
I was not going to be an astronaut. But I was always interested also
in biology. I thought, "Well, wouldn't it be fun to be one of
the docs who works with the astronauts." I decided medical school
wasn't for me, but research was an area that I was strong in. So I
tailored my education with my choice. I wanted to be a geologist during
the Apollo days, and I wanted to be a physicist during the Skylab,
and finally after that I wanted to be a physiologist. So I tailored
my education to put me in the right place at the right time with the
right background to get hired as a physiologist for NASA in Houston.
I wanted to come to JSC in Houston.
I'd always been a space buff. I was interested in space flight from
the very earliest. I was inspired by John Glenn and the folks before
that. I used to play John Glenn when I was a kid on the playground
and, now, of course, I'm working on the mission that John Glenn's
flying, so it's a nice fulfillment. I got to know the guy, and he's
just as nice as they say he is. So that was really one my motivations,
but I always wanted to be involved in the space program. I wanted
to be involved in sending people, if not myself, then sending other
folks into space.
Also, I'm very interested in the physiological aspects of space flight.
Weightlessness has always fascinated me, and so how does the body
respond to weightlessness has fascinated me, and my little niche was
the cardiovascular system. It seemed to be an area that was simple
enough for me to understand, so I was able to focus on it. So I just
worked on getting my Ph.D. at Kentucky and working on actually a centrifuge
that spun large animals like dogs, funded by the Air Force. I did
some Air Force-funded studies which were relevant not only to the
Air Force, but relevant to understanding cardiovascular physiology
in extreme environments and helping me learn how to manage large complicated
research programs, which has also been very useful here. In fact,
that was probably one of the more attractive aspects of that was the
fact that I could use a big piece of hardware, with a lot of folks
that scurry around it, and lots of computers, and lots of surgery,
and animal work as well.
Then I was lucky enough to get a postdoc here, and lucky enough to
get picked up as a civil servant when the postdoc expired, and then
seemed to have the right interest at the right times to show my interest
and to get progressively more responsible positions. So although there's
lots of heartaches and lots of headaches, and I have a very large
bottle of Excedrin back at my desk, this is the kind of work I like
to do. It also gives me access to the space history things, and I'm
very glad Glenn's here now that we can do more of that kind of stuff,
because I've been a space history buff all my life as well. So here
I am in the midst of it.
Did you get a chance to go over to Building 45 and go through the
archives? Did you go down to Rice and go through the archives? It's
like getting paid to do my hobby.
Swanson: How open were the Russians to give you any past information
from earlier medical studies, for example, the Salyut, some of the
real early long-term studies? Did that crop up at all in some of the
work that you've done?
Charles: That's a very good question, and that's the kind of question
that we get asked a lot. The Russians are very good at publishing
their results, unlike a lot of the Americans. The Russians publish
almost all their results. The Russian publications, of course, they
get translated, it may take months or years before they get translated,
and they have to find their way to the investigators that are looking
at them. Being here at JSC finally put me in the right place to see
the Russian-translated publications.
The problem we had with that was that there didn't seem to be a lot
new or interesting [findings] in the Russian results. The Russians
would publish lots and lots of data that we already had, like heart
rates and blood pressures. They would use protocols that we didn't
think were meaningful or we didn't understand. Their lower body negative
pressure, this technique that I was very familiar with, never seemed
to be stressful enough to provoke the responses that were of interest.
They never seemed to follow a protocol that was meaningful, like they
would do it twice during a ninety-day mission. Well, you don't learn
anything that way. That's an example.
There seemed to be different protocols every time they flew, so you
couldn't really make comparisons. I mean, this guy had this response
on day forty-five, but this other guy on this other mission had this
response on day eight-five. Well, what does that tell you? It tells
you just generally in flight their response looks roughly like this.
The Russians didn't seem to believe in statistics, and, of course,
the Western medical research lives and dies by statistics. The Russians
would do one subject one way and another subject another way, and
you immediately had two independent variables which is uninterpretable
by Western thinking, and the Russians had no difficulty interpreting
For example, the Russian lower body negative pressure countermeasure
they do before landing. We always ask them for the studies that led
them to that, and they always promised to give them to us and they
never did. We eventually found something that I believe was published
in the translated literature which was that study. It was four people--four,
unlike Americans which require dozens to have meaningful--four people,
each of whom did a slightly different variant. So one guy did an LBNP
and an exercise, one guy did LBNP and exercise and fluid loading,
and one guy did exercise and fluid loading, and one guy did LBNP and
exercise and muscle stimulation. And the Russians will say, "Well,
see, this guy did this, and this guy did this, and this guy did this.
Therefore, the answer obviously is this protocol for this much time."
We would throw our hands up and say, "Well, that's how you came
to that conclusion, but that doesn't mean anything to us."
So, the Russians, when they knew we wanted their data, of course,
it got to be expensive. They would hold back. They'd say, "We
can't find it," or, "We've already told you that,"
or, "It's been published," or something like that. We eventually
found most of what we were looking for, I think, in the published
literature that was translated, and most of it wasn't of any value,
of not very much value to us. So when people talk about the Russians
having these huge databases--luckily, people don't seem to say that
much anymore. I think the word had finally gotten out. The Russians
have huge databases of people that flew in space and came back warm
and pink. If that's what you're looking for, if you're looking for
a success, the guy was alive after the flight, they're very good at
that. They've got lots and lots of that data. But if you're looking
at what happened to heart rates, what happened to blood pressures,
what happened to certain ion concentrations with time in flight in
response to certain provocation, they have almost none of that. In
fact, one of the things that the Russian investigators told us is
they were glad to see us come along, because they could finally start
doing research in flight, because research was the lowest priority.
So I think the data from the NASA-Mir Program is probably about as
good as you're going to get from long-duration space flight on the
Mir as anything that the Russians have published.
There have been little bits and pieces of stuff that the Russians
published from their Soyuz experiences and from other flights that
are good, but in general it doesn't compare to the stuff the Americans
have done, I'm saying that as an American who's done some of that
stuff, but we have certain standards. We have certain Western ways
of looking at this. The Russian data may be very good by an Eastern
way of things, and I think there's a lot of this Eastern philosophy
in their medical stuff. Like the guy that was doing the carotid massage
on the cosmonaut. That made perfect sense to their way of thinking,
and that is absolutely the worse thing you can do by the Western way
of thinking. So again, by whose rules?
The Russians think they have lots of data by their rules, and they've
flown successfully. They say, "Look, the proof is in the pudding.
We've flown all these Space Station missions. We know how to exercise
people, we get them back on the ground, and after thirty days or so,
We say, "Well, yes, but can you tell us why you exercise that
"Yes, because it works."
"Well, how did you know it worked?"
"Well, just look. It works." That's sort of the Russian
circular logic. "We do it because it works because we do it."
We say, "Show us statistics."
They say, "Bah statistics! That doesn't mean anything."
There have been a few occasions in a few areas, especially in the
are of metabolism. I give Carolyn Leach Huntoon a great deal of credit
for introducing the idea of statistics in the Russian space medicine
program, because the folks she worked with ended up doing T-tests
on some of their metabolic studies they did in flight, and that was
the first evidence I've ever seen in my reading of statistics in the
Russian space medicine publications. And I know it's because she hounded
them to do it, or maybe she did them for them and gave them back to
them. I don't know. So the Russian data, when you could get it, was
interesting, but it wasn't definitive in many cases. Now, there may
be some areas where it was good or unique, but overall it was nice
to have, but certainly not life or death.
Wright: I'm sure your memories will coming back and jogging your brain
off and on for years, but we certainly appreciate your sharing as
much as you did with us today. We wish you luck in all those new fields
that you'll be going into in the next years.
Charles: Thank you very much, glad to do it.
Wright: Thank you.
[End of interview]