Minimarathons

''I'm not fluent in German,'' said astronaut Jerry Ross, who was on this mission. ''Fortunately, most of the international science people work in English anyhow, because you've got all the other languages in Europe that have to find some common language and, fortunately, that's it! I tried to learn some German, but I'm not good in foreign languages to start with and trying to do all the other things I was doing, there wasn't time to learn much German.''

Designated 'Spacelab-D2' (for 'Deutschland'), it was the second in what originally should have been a series of three missions sponsored by the former West Germany. An earlier flight, Spacelab-D1, had been undertaken with great fanfare and success in the autumn of 1985, only a couple of months before the Challenger disaster. Both it and the D2 mission were expected to pave the way for joint US/West German research on Space Station Freedom sometime in the 1990s. However, unlike the three- to six-month stints that astronauts would undertake on the station, Nagel has described week-long Spacelab missions as scientific mini-marathons.

''You want to load them up as much as you reasonably can,'' he said, ''because you want to get as much for your money, but they're like sprints. You go hard at it for a week or 10 days, and you can't do that on [the] space station. You've got to have some time to back off a little bit, because you can't keep a sprint up for a long time.'' Nagel was the only astronaut to fly both Spacelab-D1 and D2 and had experienced firsthand the hectic dual-shift, around-the-clock pace of such missions.

Such a pace would be entirely inappropriate for space station flights and when NASA flew, in succession, seven of its astronauts to the Russian Mir space station in 1995-1998 to gain experience of long-duration missions, the agency came face-to-face with the immense physical and psychological hurdles involved. Several astronauts returned to Earth totally exhausted after what they described as an ''ordeal''. It forced a major rethink of NASA's strategy of sending its astronauts -who had previously trained for intensive, fast-paced one- or two-week-long Shuttle

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