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Documents - The Meanings of Mir

For a Russian, the word "Mir" holds meaning, feeling, and history. It is sometimes translated into English as "world," or as "peace," or as "village," but a single-word translation misses its full significance.

Phase 1 Program Director Frank Culbertson discusses the meanings of the word "Mir," as he considers Phase 1's cultural and historical context, in the following paper submitted to the Congress of the Association of Space Explorers.

Related links:
Mir Space Station
Cultural Background
Profile: Frank Culbertson

What's in a Name?

by Frank L. Culbertson, Jr.
Director, Shuttle-Mir (Phase 1) Program

Paper Submitted to 10th Congress of
The Association of Space Explorers
October 3, 1996

One of the benefits of learning at least a little of the language and culture of the people you are working with, whether they are Canadians or US Southerners or Russians or Japanese, is that you're able to occasionally get beyond the official translations and public relations pronouncements. When the "Orbital Complex Mir" was launched in February, 1986, the official translation of the station's name was "Peace". In those cold war days, it would have been foolish, indeed, to call a permanent outpost in space "War", or "We're Number One!". Who knows how vigorously the US might have responded to such a blatant competitive signal? We might have built a larger station immediately in response. Remember Sputnik and the moon race?

Let me dwell for a few more minutes on what you might perceive as the triviality of a name: The station "Mir" has nothing to do with "peace", no relevance whatsoever that I can see, anymore than Space Station Freedom had anything to do with "freedom". Freedom has a nice ring, so to speak, but I always thought Sonny Carter was right when he said that if we had really let the US school children pick their favorite name, we would have called it "Recess". I almost wish the former Soviet Union had named the Mir something more combative back in '86. Knowing our politicians and public, that red flag waving would probably have resulted in a big station, a lunar outpost, and a mission enroute to Mars by now. So once again, we were outwitted by Communist propaganda that lulled us into staying with the short-flight shuttle. I think that the final nail in the coffin of the 80's version of the space station and US planetary exploration was the one flight of Buran [the Russian shuttle]. Congress probably reasoned that if the Russians thought so highly of the shuttle design that they went to the expense and trouble to copy it, we must be still ahead. Why knock yourself out with excess effort in the second half when you think you have an insurmountable lead at half-time, and the other team has resorted to copying your plays. Why indeed! Russia still has their "lonesome end play", the Mir; the US is preparing to launch the shuttle for the 80th time; and we're still working on launching an international space station.

Shortly after I renewed my Russian language studies in the early 90's, I learned that Mir also meant "world". That's an interesting possible translation, I thought. Certainly the entire world is literally at the feet of the Russian cosmonauts, not just for short episodes as we experience on shuttle, but continuously, daily, seamlessly. The Mir wasn't big, but it sure takes a world view on the situation. Just an interesting coincidence, I thought.

As my trips to Russia became more frequent, and my interest in the people and the culture grew, I read in Russian history about the original use of the word "Mir". It meant what I think we would call a village, or even a commune, in the countryside, where all the local people lived in close or communal proximity to better share the limited resources of building supplies, food, child care, and, most critically in the harsh Russian winters, heat. Life in the Mir was simple, warm, supportive, and full of strong traditions and community values. On the other hand, exclusion or expulsion from the Mir was almost certain failure or death.

So the Mir was a gathering of people with common goals and values in a place where they had a better chance of surviving, living a productive life, and succeeding as a group. Even as Russia is changing, you can still see the vestiges of this system in the crowded apartment buildings of Moscow, and the mutually supportive company towns such as Korolov-Energia or at Krunichev. Maybe the station "Mir" is actually meant to connote this concept of a village or gathering of peoples and resources.

Maybe I've decoded a Russian secret, or maybe I'm reading something into the name that was not intended, but I do see the similarities. Any outpost can take on this character of mutual support with a degree of exclusivity, but it can also become a unique place that can take the many elements involved and all the participants and truly make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, as did the traditional Russian Mir. We give this concept lip-service in most of our international endeavors, but are we actually achieving this goal in space? Are the Russians and other participants doing this on Mir? Will the partnership on ISS achieve this sublime state of affairs at assembly complete? And question number 4: Are the answers to these questions even important or relevant in a technical program?

My answer to the last question is an emphatic "Yes!" We all love space flight, we all love the engineering challenges, we all love completing the assigned operations, and we have shown we can accomplish operations in space unilaterally, bi-laterally, multi-nationally, cooperatively, competitively, upside-down, inside-out, by any gender or race, and occasionally with the most incredibly dubious payloads imaginable. And - here's tomorrow's headline for you - we can show we're having fun while working hard.

What we really need to show is relevance, growth, a learning curve. So the easy answer to question number four is "yes". Let's get back to the harder ones: Is the station Mir really a "Mir"? And will ISS achieve this subtle goal in international cooperation?

Is Orbital Complex Mir a gathering of people for the common good? In principle, yes. In practice, sometimes, and more frequently now than in the past. And I suppose that the Mir does possibly contribute to "World Peace through Cooperation in Space" by giving space travelers a destination rather than just a circular journey on the shuttle. In point of fact, however, the Mir is an outpost, a presence on the frontier that is maintained at a cost that exceeds its real or potential material return. But it is a foothold that the Russians, for all their current economic difficulties, are determined to maintain for as long as they can do so safely, in my opinion and observation. It is true that we have an excellent partnership with the Russians in Phase One. There is an ambitious and robust cooperative science program in progress, and both sides are achieving concrete and also subjective benefits from the effort. But as the US people learned during Shannon Lucid's recent mission with Yuri Onofrienko and Yury Usachev, the fact that she was there and shared the personal side of the experience far out-weighs, in their minds, the details of what she accomplished on the research side. Who remembers the science experiments that were accomplished on Apollo-Soyuz or Apollo 11 on the moon? Almost all people only remember that they occurred and humans were there. This is not to slight the excellent science programs that are a part of these missions, but just an acknowledgment of one of the realities of research in a publicly supported space program. In fact, I could write another full presentation on the issue of the rigor with which we use the science programs to justify our missions versus the rigor we impose on our payloads to perform successfully on orbit, and the lack of a requirement to report results for operational scrutiny and critique as thoroughly as we report the test plans. Perhaps this group (the ASE) should address closing the loop on research, particularly with the crew performing the experiments, as a matter of policy rather than by exception.

On to the next question: Will ISS be greater than the sum of its parts? That's also a tough call, because living up to the sum of all those parts is going to be a pretty tall order. That sum is pretty high.

Even though the program I'm a part of is called "Phase One of the International Space Station" (What's in a name, right?), I would not pretend to represent the intentions, rationale, or plans of any of the ISS management, or Phase 2, as we call them. I can only speak from the point-of-reference of working in the Shuttle-Mir Program Office, observing the Russian and US operations, talking to crew members who have flown on Mir, and my own limited experience in space.

I'm no fortune-teller, but my guess is that ISS, if we are able to bring it to true operational status, will fulfill the potential it possesses to be a gathering place of nations who will achieve more together than they could alone. The key to that success, however, rests in the hands of those who design, build, operate, control, and ultimately, populate the station. Not in the hands of those who fund it, or vote for (or against) it, or even who manage the programs that enable it.

Managers, of which I certainly am one at the moment, and politicians, which I am not, can set the framework and bounds, provide the resources, vision, and money, and on occasion, totally negate a lot of good work with bad policy, bad decisions, or poorly thought-through public statements. They cannot, however, legislate or regulate that Victor Blagov, Sr, and Bob Castle successfully plan and execute the docking of two 100+ ton spacecraft unless Victor and Bob learn to trust each other and are personally motivated to complete a successful docking while evaluating the risks of such hazards as leaking thrusters. They cannot dictate that Valeri Korzun and Bill Readdy efficiently and successfully swap over four tons of cargo between their respective spacecraft unless Valeri and Bill have developed trust in each other's ability and mutual respect for each other's command responsibility. Valery Ryumin and I cannot insist that Boris Sotnikov and Gary Johnson lay their professional reputations and lifelong careers on the line by signing for the safety of our joint operations unless Boris and Gary have had the time to learn each other's systems and standards - and the time to learn to trust each other. Commitment and patience. Enough time to experience the little successes that lead to the big ones. That's all we need.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the engineers, designers, doctors, operators, and flight crew at the massive interface of international cooperation we call Phase One who must haul this stiff, heavy, and bureaucratic fabric of the respective space programs across the minefields and thorny hedges of language barriers, translated techno-jargon, misunderstandings, national pride, twenty-hour plane trips, unfamiliar surroundings, cultural surprises and gaffs, family separations, unfamiliar food, too many toasts, unexpected personal expense and sacrifice, unsympathetic management, and hyper-critical politicians; then to stitch the seams of that fabric together with complex, acceptance-tested, safety-certified, triply-redundant, twice-translated, error-free, and (most importantly) low-cost, high quality stitches. I am constantly amazed that it's gone so well.

The people of Phase One, and now Phase Two, are confronting the reality of carrying out national policy in a way that becomes very personal for those at the seam, and is far different from the concepts on paper or the pronouncements on TV. And, fortunately, they love it!

My wife asked during a conversation about the program, why everyone comments on the facts that the Russian engineers seem to bring their own food to Houston, don't get out much, occasionally walk to grocery stores, eat mostly in their rooms, keep to themselves, and appear to dress "funny". She asked what we all do in Moscow. I told her most of us take our own food, eat mostly in our rooms, walk everywhere except to work, keep mostly to ourselves, and we certainly dress funny. Enough said.

People complain; a very few people drop out; but they know, when the Atlantis and Mir come together in space, what it took to make it happen and even the actual difficulty of getting the pretty pictures to Earth in time for the evening news. And they're very proud. And when the multi-national crews of ISS are seen sharing multi-cultural thermo-stabilized meals together in future routine pictures from station, the folks who make that possible will also know the effort behind the pictures and take pride and, hopefully, feel a part of it.

At the tip of the spear, however, the conduct of the crew-members collectively, in training and on orbit, is the most critical element of the program with the least specific control available. Many elements, of course, affect that conduct, but all else being as it should, it all comes down to personal responsibility, leadership of the commander, and strong focus on the basic goals by the entire group. My point is that I think that this group, ASE, can take a stronger, more public position on this issue. We should educate current crews in training, our management, and the public, that the crew on orbit, given the time and tools to trust each other, will solve the problems of language, culture and diet in their own ways, unique to each crew.

As current and former crew-members, as current and future managers, we have a two-fold responsibility in enabling the stitching of the programmatic fabric. As crew members, we need to set the example for the rest of the team in the trenches. We need to look for the compromise that solves the problem, not dwell on the competitive spirit that got us all selected. We need to learn the basics of language and culture of those we will be working with, and encourage our controllers and engineers to do the same. The excuse that "I'm not adept at languages and don't have time," is pure baloney. Every one of us had to learn a new language just to graduate from the specialized training we received in our careers, whether it was medical school vocabulary, space jargon, or test pilot lingo, it was a new language, and we were motivated. We should feel the same now, about English or Russian or Japanese or French or whatever. Choose one or more!

As managers, we need to hand them the tools to do the stitching, and enough thread to unzip and start over if the seam is crooked. We need to set the course, establish the requirements, foster a positive attitude, and get out of the way. Those stitching the seams will act confidently and creatively if we exhibit confidence and enthusiasm for their work and if we listen to the feedback. They will figure out a way to work together if we tell them it's okay to trust each other and cooperate. They will grind to a halt if we constantly tell them to watch their backs working with the "other side". It's OUR jobs to watch their backs and protect their careers while they move forward jointly. They will play one side against the other if the managers defend their side against the other. They will figure out a solution if the managers lead side-by-side.

Shannon Lucid told me that she considered her mission a great adventure and a personal success due to three factors:

As an example, she said that she and Yuri and Yuri shared every single meal together except for one during their entire mission. Regular time together for the good of the crew was important enough to interrupt anything else that might be going on.

So, to the final question you might ask, what are we getting out Phase One? Many of our lessons are repeats that were forgotten from Apollo-Soyuz, such as: Why do we hold our summer meetings in Houston and our winter meetings in Moscow?

We are learning that neither side has all the answers, but both sides have tremendous talent. We're learning that given the time and most of the tools, people will endure remarkable hardship to achieve success in space and technology. We're learning that our people are more alike than they are different. We've learned that there is an answer to every problem or issue, and that it's best to have a solid technical answer before you try to explain it politically. We have learned that manifest and stowage flexibility and transfer discipline are the keys to the re-supply problem. And we've learned that the simplicity of the technology of the pencil is sometimes a more valid solution than the complexity of the highly capable, but more expensive, pressurized pen.

Due to the early frustrations of the program, I used to have in my notebook the words: "It doesn't have to be this hard!"

Now it says: "It is hard, get over it, and work on the compromise."

The name means "community" to me.

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