Skip to main content

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — An astronaut with ties to the University of Tennessee Space Institute has become the Russian space station’s Mister Fix-It.

Dr. Norman Thagard, an American, and two Russian cosmonauts have been orbiting the Earth in Russia’s Mir space station since March 16.

Thagard’s mission has been medical experiments, but he is a multi-talented individual who can respond quickly to emergencies — as he did last month on Mir and in January 1992 with a UTSI experiment on a space shuttle flight.

When cosmonaut Gennady Strekalov burned his hand seriously while reaching behind an electrical panel, Thagard treated the resulting inflammation.

“Norm is not only an astronaut and medical doctor; he’s a pilot and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and he bailed us out when an equipment malfunction almost cost us our experiment (in 1992),” said UTSI Vice President Dwayne McCay.

“When one of the crew members attempted to mate two connectors, he broke the connector and bent the pins severely, and it appeared we were defunct,” McCay said.

“From then on, he basically baby-sat our experiment even though he had other things to do. Without his help, it’s almost certain we’d have gotten very little data, if any data at all. He basically salvaged the whole experiment by doing something the other crew members weren’t able to do.”

Thagard had spent two weeks, including six days at UTSI, familiarizing himself with the UTSI experiment — to determine if super-strong metal alloys for such things as jet engine blades could be made in weightlessness.

McCay said the experiments convinced him and his wife and co-investigator, ex-astronaut Mary Helen McCay, that manufacturing quality materials in space is economically feasible. She is a member of the National Research Council committee on the international space station.

Thagard is the first American to visit Mir, which has been in orbit since 1986.

If the shuttle Atlantis blasts off as scheduled Friday, it is due to rendezvous and dock with Mir next Monday. After five days of joint maneuvers, Atlantis will return Thagard home, landing July 4. The two Russians will remain on Mir.

On June 6 Thagard broke America’s space endurance record of 84 days, set by three Skylab astronauts in 1974. If all goes according to plan, his single-flight record set last month will be extended to 104 days. And, during his five missions, Thagard will have logged 3,100 hours or 129 days in space.

NASA officials describe the docking maneuver between Atlantis and Mir as very complex. Two such massive objects have never before docked in space. At 100 tons each, Mir and Atlantis dwarf the Apollo and Soyuz capsules which docked in July 1975.

Atlantis’ commander is Robert “Hoot” Gibson, husband of astronaut Rhea Seddon, a surgeon and graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine.

Contact: Dwayne McCay (615-455-0631)