Engineering inspiration: NASA’s Linenger challenges us to reach deeper, do more for each other

You don’t need to be faced with death in space to reach deeper, do it right, inspire others, and be thankful for every moment, said Dr. Jerry Linenger, retired U.S. Navy flight surgeon and NASA astronaut. See photos, related links, including letters to his son. He spoke to more than 1,400 engineering-minded participants at the RSTechEd 2011 conference on June 14 in Orlando.

By Mark T. Hoske June 16, 2011

With an oxygen canister spewing flame and melting metal like a blowtorch, Dr. Jerry Linenger was seconds away from death on the Russian Space Station Mir. Certain he was going to die, he knew had more to do, in space and on earth. In the following minutes, Linenger did more than he thought he could and now he lives his life differently. He gained courage and insight from the crisis and five months of experiences on Mir conducting science and engineering experiments with two Russian cosmonauts.

Linenger asked more than 1,400 engineering-minded participants at RSTechEd 2011 in Orlando to reach deeper, do it right, inspire others, and be thankful for every moment. The June 14 keynote speaker at the Rockwell Automation software conference asked those gathered to challenge each other with moral courage, act with integrity and truth always, and not let anyone down for lack of preparation or execution.

“Always do it right, without shortcuts, and ensure people around you do the same,” Linenger advised. He began his talk with a video of space flight and poetry that asked if reaching the top of a mountain would make someone feel bigger or smaller, if touching the sky would make someone feel differently about the planet, if viewing the world as a whole would give someone more respect for neighbors, and if leaving the world for awhile would cause someone to return a different human. Linenger characterized his life in three distinct parts: 40 years on earth, five months on Mir traveling the equivalent of 110 round-trips to the moon, and life back on earth. His paraphrased comments and advice follow.

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I was in the Navy for 22 years and like to be with people who get things done, engineers like you. I want you to use your imaginations and come to space with me. I never felt as isolated as I did those five months, in grand view of the world, with two Russians who I sometimes couldn’t understand. After one shuttle mission, I was asked to consider serving aboard Mir. Knowing that route involved months away from earth and more than a year of additional training, I had to ask my wife, Kathryn, for permission. She shared my sense of adventure and agreed.

For a year and a half, I trained in Russia, studying the language every morning and rocket science, in Russian, every afternoon. At first, not understanding most of what was said, I spent time memorizing Mir’s electric circuit diagrams. On a failing space station, you gotta know your stuff.

The importance of individual confidence and preparation to any team is critical. Work hard to make sure you know your stuff.

In the Russian winter, at Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, daylight arrives about 11 a.m. and night falls by 4 p.m. Perhaps not surprisingly, my wife was expecting our first child after a short time. After a long winter and longer training beyond that, I finally kissed my young son, John, and my pregnant-again wife good-bye. I was in medical quarantine for a week so I wouldn’t take any germs up with me. I knew I would miss a lot of John’s growth and development over the next five months and hoped to return two weeks before the birth of my second child. These things made me very thoughtful.

What have you done with the last year of your life? Are you still on an exponential learning curve as young children are?

I was very soon sitting on 7 million pounds of thrust, reaching Mach 5 in about 8 minutes, with the nearest humans [those not sitting atop of a controlled explosion] 2 miles away in a bunker. While sitting there, I was thinking about you all. I was helping to represent all of humanity up there, and I knew that I wanted to do it right. You all travel on business, I’m sure, and probably have been on more than one rough flight. Taking off in the space shuttle feels like you’re the marble shaking inside a tin can. Six minutes later, after leaving the atmosphere, it’s like sitting in a drag racer, pinned to your seat, quickly on the way to 18,000 mph. It took 1.5 days to catch up to Mir, which consisted of seven or eight interconnected school-bus-sized modules.

With manual docking and 1-inch tolerance inside the docking ring, precision is key; connected, the two spacecrafts had mass of 250 tons. In five short days, the shuttle leaves. There’s a lot to do in the marvels of space. Despite conditions so unlike anything humans are used to, within 30 days, I’m laughing and spinning, pushing off with a finger and twirling from the end of one module to another. Mir was then 18 years old and had a 3- to 5-year design life. There were daily breakdowns due to lack of maintenance and Russian budgetary challenges. Some Mir systems were operating on secondary without a tertiary; there were two or three master [severe] alarms daily. Generally, one master alarm means someone’s having a bad day in space. In comparison, the shuttle rarely had any master alarms to speak of, with systems switching to secondary automatically and tertiary by manual, if needed. One day, Mir’s master oxygen generator failed, which meant one of my Russian friends had a day and a half to fix it or we’d suffocate. I floated by, patted him on the back, and said with confidence, “You’re a good man. I know you can fix that.”

With another alarm, on another day, the gyrodynes failed. They kept Mir properly aligned using star data for proper solar panel battery charging when on the sunny side of the earth, so the batteries could sustain life on the dark side. Without proper alignment, we didn’t get a full charge and soon were tumbling in complete darkness and utter silence on the dark side of the earth. Calling out, we found each other in the darkness, and the three of us held hands, floating in a triangle for a quick meeting to decide how best to proceed.

In darkness, seek people you trust.

As we came around into the light, we were still tumbling but let go of each other, because it looked silly for us to hold hands. One of the cosmonauts jumped in the attached Soyuz capsule, and we worked on calculations to reorient the station so the solar panels would face the sun. It took about two days, roughly 30 orbits, to regain full power. Despite the emergencies, I had many lifetimes of experiments in my care while on Mir. I didn’t want to have to explain to an engineer or scientist that I didn’t have time to do what was the culmination of a career of study and effort to assemble and send to space. As they were completed, I marked them off the chart and felt an enormous sense of accomplishment getting them done (more than 100 in all).

Another day, after another alarm, I heard Vasily [Tsibliev, Mir-23 Commander] yelling one of the worst things anyone wants to hear in space: “Fire!” Within 30 seconds, I couldn’t see five fingers in front of my face.

Amid fire, smoke, and wildly blinking indicator lights, we made our way to the source. An oxygen canister (serving as a backup for a failed primary oxygen generator) was spewing more than 3 feet of flame, like a blowtorch. It was spurting what looked like hundreds of balls of wax, actually molten metal. We knew if the canister tipped from its position, the fire would burn through and breach the hull, killing us by instant decompression, in the icy vacuum of space. I instinctively stayed low and immediately realized that doesn’t work in space because heat and smoke do not rise in zero gravity. Gasping for breath, I laughed out loud at the thought of opening a window for air. I finally reached a respirator, put it on, turned the valve, took a deep breath, and imploded the mask against my face, getting nothing. The respirator didn’t work. I was gasping, out of air, feeling around desperately, trying to remember where another respirator was.

Lack of oxygen was closing darkness around me. I yelled out good-bye to my wife, Kathryn, good-bye to my son, John, and to our baby to be. What a strange place to die, I thought.

“Sorry to let you down, son. It looks like won’t be making it back.” I was OK with the idea of death, but in that moment was filled with the pain of regret, realizing I had left nothing behind for my son. I should have written something for him, even if just to say that I loved him and would watch over him if I didn’t make it back.

As I was losing consciousness, my fingers ran over another respirator. I pulled it on and opened the valve. It worked; I breathed in hard and hyperventilated for two minutes to restore oxygen into my bloodstream.

Now we had to try to get that fire out. Vasily was around the corner and powered down the system where the fire was. Unfortunately, the flame was right at the entrance of a module, allowing only one of us to use one fire extinguisher at a time. Vasily pulled the pin, pointed it at the fire, saw that it worked, and realized instantly that, in space, fire extinguishers serve as a powerful backward thruster. (Perhaps we should have realized that, since previously, for a bit of fun, each of us had put the station’s vacuum cleaner between our legs and rode it around the station like cowboys.)

I grabbed him, braced his back, and he emptied the water-based fire extinguisher onto spewing fire. And another. I nudged him, and he nudged back to confirm we were each still conscious. The fire extinguishers weren’t making a difference against the torch-like flame, and he was getting burned by molten metal. We turned it to hose down the bulkhead opposite the fire to try to cool that and prevent a hull breach. After emptying the fourth fire extinguisher, the oxygen fuel source ran out, the generator was melted, and we very briefly felt relief.

We still were in big trouble. We had an unbreathable atmosphere. We had to get the filters going. In an hour and 45 minutes our air canisters would run out. The filters were working, but could they clear the air in time? Vasily’s air ran out first, he removed his mask, and could breathe. I tended to his injuries. Sleep came quickly that night.

When you go to bed, no matter how big your challenges, just leave them behind. Learn from your experiences and press on.

I realized I had been selling myself short my whole life. I was in excellent shape, had run marathons and full triathlons with friends who were Navy Seals, and I exercised in the simulator until I could wring out my shirt and fill a glass of water.

After the fire in space, I realized that until you’ve focused and concentrated so intensely to the point of exhaustion, you haven’t used all the brain power we’ve been given. After that experience, my level of determination jumped to 10 times much as it was previously. I wanted more than anything to get that fire out and see my boy again, and I was going to do it.

We have something else inside that allows us to rise to an occasion and overcome amazing obstacles. Apply that to your personal life, your family, and work. If you have that level of determination, you can achieve what you didn’t know you could.

After I had been around the world a few thousand times, I wrote many notes to my son and sent them via our regular download, to earth. [See links below.]

Consider writing those you love a note. Something physical, on paper, that they can hold, even if it’s just: “Dear son, I love you… Dad.” Or to your mom and dad. They’re not going to be around forever. Or to your spouse.

When I thought I was taking my last breath, I wanted to let them all know that I loved them, more than anything. One experiment, I had to conduct a space walk out on a long pole, way out from the space station. I was on a tether, then on the pole, swung into open space. I was far enough away where the Mir looked like a Tinkertoy in the distance. There I was, out in nothingness, going 18,000 mph without any real visual connection. It was like free-fall parachuting, which I had done, only hundreds of times faster.

I grasped the pole with overwhelming fear. I’d spent six months on the bottom of a pool training for these five hours of work. I closed my eyes and told myself that it was okay to fall, since there was no bottom. I slowly, convincingly, tucked away my fear in the recesses of my brain. I focused on the experiment, the data cables, and the power cables.

Before long, I was swinging on the tethers, yelling “Yahoo” where no one could hear me, and wanted to stay out as long as I could. Just an hour before, I was overwhelmed with white-knuckled fear.

The adaptability of the human mind is immeasurable. People say we cannot change, we’ve always done it this way, or that way, or they cannot change whatever personal habits because of this or that. Excuses go on and on and on. People can change anything if they set their minds to it.

I told myself, if I can adapt to that, I could adapt to anything. Five hours after paralyzing fear, I was exhilarated, inside, enjoying a satisfying meal of jellied fish in a toothpaste tube. In my notes to my son, I told him something I never really believed up to that point.

“Dear John… your Dad has courage.” I used to study leaders in combat and I hoped I would have that courage inside me if I needed it someday. I never felt brave until that point. It always felt it was pure privilege to do what I was doing. I faced challenges and did what I was supposed to do. I never met an astronaut who didn’t feel what he was doing was worth his life. But I didn’t consider myself courageous, up until that point.

Bravery can summon that level of bravery for us, on earth. People are challenged with acts of moral courage. I encourage them to act with integrity, to be truthful always. No one in this room is going to let anyone here down. Always do it right, take no shortcuts, and ensure people around you do the same.

Soon space shuttle Atlantis was in our rearview mirror and docking. Five days later, Mission Control in Houston turned us upside-down and backward for 48.621 seconds to decelerate and get our heat-treated tiles in the right direction, and 20 minutes later we slammed into the atmosphere. After five months of weightless, I had 3Gs piled on me. It was like hitting a locomotive.

I’m sure you’re aware, a space shuttle is a heavy glider, without an engine for landing, in need of a manual control. After a 180-degree turn and the last two sonic booms, the pilot has one shot to get it right. We hit the Atlantic if we go long or the Gulf if we go short. They have the right systems, software, and training, working together as a team, triple-checking their work, then vote just to be sure. I tell them, “Thank you for getting me back.” Then they say, “It’s good to see you too,” as if they weren’t sure what they were doing was correct.

The woman landing the shuttle for this mission, later to be the first female shuttle commander, flairs us around in line with the runway, puts the gear down, then the parachutes unfurl, wheels stop, hatch opens, and I breathe the first fresh air, earth air, in five months. It tastes good.

You should smile every second you can take a sweet breath of earth air.

Here I need to explain that despite being in excellent shape and doing two rigorous one-hour workouts daily for five months, I suffered 14% bone loss and muscle atrophy, with just 65% of my preflight muscle mass.

It’s customary to carry off long-term space travelers on a stretcher when returning, and they were ready for me with a stretcher. But, if you haven’t been able to tell, I’m sometimes a bit stubborn, and explained that I’d like to walk, or crawl if necessary, on my own power. You understand what that’s about. I had a great deal of pride in what I was doing and who I was representing. My vision was closing to darkness as I stood, and I felt like someone was sitting on my shoulders. My heart remembered what it should be doing, and my vision cleared before I passed out. I walked slowly out onto the gang plank and the applause began. I saw my wife, and my son was huge, and my wife was…two weeks away from delivery. (I learned, as all the men should know, never to call your wife huge.) Seeing them again was the best moment of my life.

You don’t have to blast off into space to know what counts.

Getting used to gravity again was a challenge. I dropped a pen on the shuttle on the way back, after I set it in the air next to me, expecting it to stay. I also did that with a full cup of water later at home, after taking a sip. As for conditioning, despite getting back to my usual workouts, it took a year and a half to get back to normal. When I was 14 years old, I felt like I had run out of time to follow my dreams. I told my dad I wanted to be an astronaut someday. He put his arm around me, told me to work hard, study hard, and if being an astronaut was what I really wanted to do, I could do it. He didn’t get to see me do it, but I felt he was with me.

I respect everyone here very much for doing the engineering work you’re doing. Don’t hesitate to put your arms around the people you love. Leave them something behind along the way. Change a life. Step back to look at the bigger picture. Stay on the exponential learning curve. And next year at this time, say, “Wow, that was a really good year.”

Thanks. It’s been an honor to be with you.

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Touching the sky clearly did make Linenger feel differently about the planet. Viewing the world as a whole gave him more respect for his neighbors, and leaving the world for awhile did make him feel like a different person. So can we, he insists, even without going into space. I believe him.

– Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

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Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.