Linenger's post-Mir perspective
February 22, 1999
SUTTONS BAY, Michigan (CNN) -- His trial by fire behind him, Jerry Linenger is taking a well-earned break here on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay.
Not long after he returned from his five-month mission to space station Mir, he retired from the corps of NASA astronauts and Navy flight surgeons. These days, he spends a lot of time with his two young sons (John and Jeff) and his lovely wife Kathryn (who is expecting again, this spring).
He has an office across the bay, and the commute made me envious: Depending on the weather and his mood, he may either swim, kayak or cycle to work.
Once he dries off, he spends a half-day working on a book and an increasingly busy speaking schedule. He then promptly pedals, paddles or crawls his way back home for an afternoon with his family -- usually enjoying an activity where they can all sample and savor nature's astounding offerings in this beautiful corner of the world.
A novel way to house-hunt
Matter of fact, Jerry, who grew up in southern Michigan, tells me he realized he wanted to be here as he peered down from Mir, 250 miles overhead: "As pretty a place as any on the planet," he says. How's that for a novel way to house-hunt?
He asked producer Linda Saether and me if we, too, had a "special" place in the world -- a place where we would be if responsibilities or finances were not an issue. A blue-sky-fantasy, ideal location. Neither of us had a quick answer, which I suppose is another way of saying "no".
Too bad for us, I guess. Good for Jerry Linenger. And who could begrudge him this contentment?
In a career marked by lofty goals, determination to achieve them, and ultimately, success, Linenger's five months on Mir stand apart in his mind as a defining time. He sees his life in three acts: I -- On the Planet; II -- Off the Planet; III -- Back to Earth.
During Act II, he looked down on some of the world's hot spots and wondered why it all happens. He wondered why, in the midst of those stunning mountains which drop into the Adriatic Sea, people find it so difficult to get along. On an astronaut's real-life, real-time relief map, there are no lines -- no Bosnias -- just God's creation.
The worst moment
When he wasn't staring out a porthole, Jerry Linenger was floating from the frying pan to the fire. He says he slept soundly the night after he and his Russian crewmates doused an oxygen generating canister that exploded -- blocking their escape route to the Soyuz lifeboat.
"The fire is something that has a beginning and an end," he says. "The mechanical problems on Mir are a different story. Those are sort of a nagging problem that is hard to solve."
Frightening as the fire was, Linenger's worst moment of the Shuttle-Mir era came in Houston during his successor's mission to the space station. The botched manual docking maneuver that ended in collision, decompression and nearly evacuation for Mike Foale and his cosmonaut hosts had been attempted during Linenger's time on Mir. That effort also left the unmanned Progess spacecraft hurtling out of control toward Mir. It was, fortunately, a near miss.
It was a hard time for Jerry as details of the collision were pried loose from the taciturn Russian Space Agency.
"It was the worst moment of my life because I felt very responsible that we did not address that problem properly, and Mike Foale and my two Russian crewmates lives were in very dire straits because of that," he told me.
Once nearly bitten, why did the Russians try that flawed maneuver again?
"Their resources are very limited so it is very hard for them to address some of the problems," Linenger says. "So to some degree, they suppress it because there is nothing they can do about it, and that is the dangerous part of their mindset."
A time to retire
Because they don't have the money, and because Mir's fundamental systems are failing, Linenger doesn't waffle when the talk turns to Russia's apparent desire to keep Mir aloft.
"I think I have the thoughtfulness to know when it is time to retire with dignity," he says. "That is what I chose for myself personally, and the decision makers in Russia need to make that decision for the Mir space station."
So what next for Jerry Linenger? He's had some offers that might seem tempting, from academia to politics. None of it interests him more than being here and spending time with his family.
He's staying put in his own special place for now. Maybe there will be new lofty goals which may pull him away. And maybe not.
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Mondays.
Downlinks: Last chance for some orbiting Russian real estate
NASA Shuttle-Mir Web: Crew - Jerry Linenger
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