American Faces Cosmonaut Tradition

B A I K O N U R, Kazakstan, Oct. 30, 2000 -- The first American to ride a Russian rocket into orbit broke cosmonaut tradition — and tempted fate — on his way to the launch pad five years ago.

Mir-bound astronaut Norman Thagard didn’t urinate on the back tire of the bus. He was afraid photographers might catch him in the act.

Now, it’s astronaut Bill Shepherd’s turn.

On Tuesday, Shepherd will become the second American to be launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Not Bashful

Never mind that he’ll be flying to a brand new space station and taking charge as its first commander: Will he or won’t he partake in this cosmonaut ritual on his way to the pad?

Shepherd said today that he’d follow along.

“I’ll be there on the tracks tomorrow,” he promised.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin didn’t mean to start a tradition when he made his bus halt for a pit stop on his way to becoming the first human in space on April 12, 1961. He simply wanted to go before boarding his rocket, say Russian space officials in the know.

On every subsequent launch from this launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, all cosmonauts are believed to have followed suit, except for the handful of female cosmonauts — and Thagard on March 14, 1995.

“It was broad daylight. I could see the pad from where the bus was and I wasn’t so sure that somebody with a telescopic lens could be shooting out there,” Thagard recalled in a recent interview back in Florida.

Thagard just stood there as his two Russian crewmates relieved themselves in memory of Gagarin’s feat.

Relax and Stay Busy

Thagard, 57, now an electronics professor at Florida State University, his alma mater, has no advice for Shepherd regarding cosmonaut rituals and superstitions.

But he does offer these two tips: Relax, the Soyuz rocket is smoother — and safer — than the space shuttle. And more importantly, stay busy up there.

Thagard says he was so bored during his four-month Mir mission that he would have welcomed a fire or a collision like the ones that crippled the Russian space station two years after he left.

“I would have preferred a crisis,” says Thagard, a former Marine and combat pilot. “I know in Vietnam, it was almost perverse, but I liked to go over into Laos and get shot at because otherwise it was too boring.”

Much to Do

Shepherd will have plenty to do once he arrives at the international space station on Thursday for a four-month stay, even without crises. He and the two Russian cosmonauts on his crew must activate the life-support systems — and the all-important toilet — and start setting up shop.

Thagard says Shepherd should have a much easier time aboard the international space station than he did aboard Mir. The international space station is, after all, a U.S. enterprise.

Besides, Shepherd, a bulky weightlifter, is the boss.