American Faces Cosmonaut Tradition

ByMarcia Dunn

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

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

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

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

Not Bashful

Never mind that he’ll be flying to a brand new space station andtaking charge as its first commander: Will he or won’t he partakein 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 traditionwhen he made his bus halt for a pit stop on his way to becoming thefirst human in space on April 12, 1961. He simply wanted to gobefore boarding his rocket, say Russian space officials in theknow.

On every subsequent launch from this launch pad at the BaikonurCosmodrome, all cosmonauts are believed to have followed suit,except for the handful of female cosmonauts — and Thagard on March14, 1995.

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

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

Relax and Stay Busy

Thagard, 57, now an electronics professor at Florida StateUniversity, his alma mater, has no advice for Shepherd regardingcosmonaut rituals and superstitions.

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

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

“I would have preferred a crisis,” says Thagard, a formerMarine and combat pilot. “I know in Vietnam, it was almostperverse, but I liked to go over into Laos and get shot at becauseotherwise it was too boring.”

Much to Do

Shepherd will have plenty to do once he arrives at theinternational space station on Thursday for a four-month stay, evenwithout crises. He and the two Russian cosmonauts on his crew mustactivate the life-support systems — and the all-important toilet —and start setting up shop.

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

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

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