Not many people know about the oasis that sits in the middle of the Arizona desert, right outside of Tucson, called Oracle. There lies a funny-looking three-acre glass building that used to be home to a project called Biosphere 2. It was created in the 90s, with a very noble goal of giving humans the chance to build livable environments in space for future colonization. Where? Well, the moon or Mars for starters.
In 1991, eight people were given the offer to be a part of one of the most expensive scientific experiments in recent history. So what happened there? How did “the most exciting scientific project” turn into one of “the worst 100 ideas?” After spending two years in the biodome, the study’s participants finally revealed what went on and how life in the structure really was.
Life on Another Planet?
Biosphere 2 is best known for the two missions carried out between 1991 and 1994. The latter, though, was called off in its early stages after a dispute got out of hand (word on the street is that it was due to major interpersonal drama). First of all, if you’re curious about why it was called Biosphere 2, it’s because, technically, Earth is Biosphere 1.
Anyways, the first project was highly publicized. Eight brave crew members agreed to lock themselves in the Biosphere for two full years. They were aware that they were meant to survive on their own with no outside help. Their goal was virtuous, for sure. Life on another planet? Surely, it’s worth examining, no? I’m sure Elon Musk would agree.
The Man Behind the Project
The man behind Biosphere 2 was John Allen, a Harvard MBA. In 1963, after a couple of hallucinogenic trips on peyote, Allen looked out of the Manhattan office where he was working and realized he couldn’t even open the window. Feeling claustrophobic from the revelation, he felt trapped like a bug inside a glass.
At that moment, Allen had an ironic epiphany. Ironic because the man would work tirelessly to eventually seal up a handful of his followers three decades later. He then sailed from New York on a freighter and basically traveled the world, looking for wisdom. By 1967, he became a type of obscure teacher in the hippie-counterculture of San Francisco.
The Synergia Ranch
He would deliver weekly lectures to a group of mainly young followers. In 1968, he and his “students” went back to New York to set up a theater company. From there, they went to New Mexico and started a commune near Santa Fe. Allen’s Synergia Ranch was unlike other counterculture (“hippie”) experiments. The “Synergians” were a hardworking bunch.
In 1974, a young Yale dropout from Texas by the name of Edward Perry “Ed” Bass wandered up to the Synergia Ranch. Like Allen, Bass was extremely interested in the environment. But, unlike Allen, he was a billionaire heir to an oil fortune. With Allen’s big dreams and Bass’s big money, the Synergians took on bigger things.
Big Dreams and Big Money
Later that year, the whole gang drove an old school bus to Berkeley, California. There, they built an 82-foot sailboat. If it isn’t clear – none of these people had ever built a boat before. By 1975, they were sailing “The Heraclitus” around the world. They sailed up the Amazon River, dove into the coral reefs in the tropics, and even ventured to Antarctica to do research on whales.
They got their hands on a massive cattle ranch in Australia. They also started a sustainable forest in Puerto Rico, constructed a hotel and community center in Kathmandu, and took on all kinds of projects in Nepal, the UK, France, and the United States.
His Grand Plan
By this point, they were called the Institute for Ecotechnics, and they began hosting international conferences on ecology, sustainable development, and finally, space colonization. At a conference in Oracle, Arizona, in 1984, Allen announced some big plans. He stated that he was planning to build a trial Mars colony on Earth – by the end of the decade.
As Allen saw it, the destiny of human beings was to carry Earth’s life into space. The first step? A working colony on Mars. They broke ground for Biosphere 2 in January 1987. To make up for the lack of qualifications for the jobs they held, Allen’s team enlisted the help of real experts to execute the design.
Noah’s Ark: The Sequel
Walter Adey, a geologist, was in charge of the ocean. The rain forest was created by Sir Ghillean Prance, the director of the New York Botanical Garden. These two, and other experts, installed 3,800 species inside the biodome – all while huge cranes were lifting great sections into place above them.
The grand development wowed the press; the narratives touched on myth and religion. “Time” called it “Noah’s Ark: The Sequel.” This, of course, created expectations that would be hard to meet. Biosphere 2 was built between 1987 and 1991, and the 3.14-acre sealed greenhouse contained a mini rain forest, a desert, a little ocean, a swamp, a savanna, and a small farm. A 1987 article in “DISCOVER” dubbed it “the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon.”
No Turning Back Now
In 1991, four women and four men in NASA-style suits walked into the air-locked Biosphere 2. They spent the next two years growing 80 percent of their food, which, by the way, was something NASA never even attempted. Only 18 years later, in 2009, did NASA announce total water recycling on their International Space Station.
The overarching goal of Biosphere 2 was to see if Earth’s ecosystems could be manufactured and maintained elsewhere in the universe – you know, should we need to bail on this planet. But being locked up for two years with the same handful of people is no simple task. It was basically like “Big Brother” with massively different circumstances, but the same kind of drama.
Twelve Days In…
Twelve days in, Jane Poynter, a young British woman in charge of the farm, put her hand in a threshing machine while sorting rice. It wasn’t pretty. The group’s doctor had to sew the tip of her middle finger back on. Unfortunately, the graft didn’t take, and she had to be evacuated for surgery.
She returned a few hours later to serve out the rest of the two-year mission. But when she re-entered the dome, a duffel bag was brought with her. According to Poynter, the bag had nothing important inside, just some circuit boards and a plan for the rain forest. But the media had a field day with it. The bag and the fact that someone left and came back in… You can’t do that on Mars!
Gloomy Morning Meetings
More threatening signs of trouble started steadily happening. Every morning, the crew had a breakfast meeting over bowls of homemade porridge in Star Trek-like chairs around a granite table. One morning early on in their mission, the crew captain announced that the carbon dioxide had risen to 521 parts per million. That’s a 45 percent increase above the outside levels.
The next day, the lowest it got to was 826. Over the following months, the morning meeting news got worse and worse. Crew members were tired and breathless when climbing stairs. In the Spring of 1992, geochemist Wally Broecker got a phone call in New York from someone at Biosphere 2. They needed help.
The Co2 Whistle Blower
Broecker was asked to consult on their atmosphere. Since the late 70s, he was a whistleblower when it came to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After all, he was the one who coined the term “global warming.” John Allen and Broecker had already met, and, according to Broecker, Allen showed him a graph of the gas composition of Biosphere 2’s atmosphere, but he then nervously pulled it back, worried that someone else might see it.
A week after the call for help, Broecker flew to Arizona and started collecting data. When Biosphere 2 was being put together, a lot of attention was focused on charismatic species. Broecker and his graduate student, Jeffrey Severinghaus, discovered that the problem in the carbon dioxide problem was with the tiniest organisms in the place: soil bacteria.
The Carbon Dioxide Problem
Allen and his crew, ambitious in their grand plan, intended for the Biosphere 2 to be used by rotating crews over 100 years. Allen believe that they had one shot to invest in their world, so they included life-giving nutrients, loaded their soils with compost from the bottom of a cattle pond. And when the airlocks closed, the soil bacteria had a big party, exhaling carbon dioxide and essentially tipping the balance in the wrong way.
By January 1993, Biosphere 2’s carbon dioxide levels were 12 higher than those outside. The oxygen levels were the same as what mountaineers get 17,000 feet up. The in-house doctor was having trouble even adding up simple figures. He eventually disqualified himself from his role.
The Media Ate It Up
A year and four months into the first mission, trucks carrying 31,000 pounds of liquid oxygen arrived at the site. Again, the media ate it up. The story of wide-eyed “hippie” idealists getting taken downplayed well in the media. The entire time, Biosphere 2’s glass walls were lined with TV cameras and tourists – all trying to get a sneak peek.
Basically, the crew’s lives turned into reality TV. On top of the wildly unstable carbon dioxide levels and the huge ant and cockroach populations, there was the very real and exhausting psychological strain of being stuck in a closed environment with the same people. Just ask Jack Torrance (from “The Shining”) how that turned out.
The “Big Brother” Reality
Word has it that the producers of “Big Brother” acknowledged Biosphere 2 as their inspiration. Whether that’s true or not, the plotline – people cooped up together for months – rang true. They were struggling with their atmosphere and hunger while being filmed by well-fed people. As you can imagine, it only led to fights among the Biospherians.
By the end of the mission, in September 1993, the Biospherians came out thinner, a tad healthier, but separated into two groups of four who were no longer speaking. Cracks opened between the team and their advisors and extended into their relationship with Ed Bass. Speaking of millionaires, Biosphere was originally budgeted at $30 million, but it cost a reported $200 million.
Backlash and a Marriage
There was also widespread criticism of the study by other scientists; they had their suspicions of ulterior motives. There were some other criticisms: the constant hunger from the very strict but nutrient-rich diet, the low morale, the consistent injuries, and, yes, the disputes between the crew. There were even some love stories that spawned from this project.
For instance, two “Biospherians” got married as soon as the mission ended (at least something positive came out of it, right?). Despite all the backlash, the project was deemed successful enough to justify a second mission. But this second mission proved to be a pretty bad idea. Biosphere 2’s second mission was meant to last 10 months, but within weeks of its onset, a disagreement led to a rather embarrassing turn of events.
A Cursed Round Two
By the time a second crew came in for the second mission, Bass had already had enough. A fight ensued between those in charge, leading to on-site management being thrown out by federal marshals. On April 1, 1994, Bass’ bankers, with carloads of armed federal marshals and deputies, barged into the site with a restraining order.
Reportedly, a few former crew members broke into the biodome to warn the current team about the new management. Days later, those former crew members vandalized the building. They smashed glass and opened doors to let outside air in (a scientific sort of rebellion, I guess). In addition, multiple crew members walked out mid-mission.
Utopia? More like Dystopia
The second crew lingered around for another five and a half months before terminating its mission prematurely. It’s unfortunate because the second mission had actually been showing a lot of promise. They were able to achieve total food sufficiency and maintain oxygen levels. But, despite their partial success, the media and the science establishment chose to focus on the ways in which the project failed.
A major criticism centered on the project’s main goal – essentially, they didn’t do what they set out to do. Biosphere 2’s atmosphere wasn’t able to sustain human life. The problem: rising carbon dioxide. In the end, Biosphere 2 modeled dystopia rather than its ideal utopia. “A future plagued by high carbon dioxide levels,” Rebecca Reider wrote about the history of the project.
Columbia University Took Over
With the Biospherians having been ejected from their Eden, Bass’ people began looking for a new organization to take over the facility. They struck a deal with Columbia University. The new director of research was Wally Broecker, the global warming expert. Columbia University, and later the University of Arizona, used Biosphere 2 to run their own studies on global climate change.
As evidence of global warming was increasing, the idea of removing carbon from the air became important in the world. What would happen as the world grew warmer, and more carbon dioxide was being released into the atmosphere? Today, soil respiration – the big Co2 problem for the Biospherians – is still a wild card.
The Garden of Eden On Top Of an Aircraft Carrier
Today, Biosphere 2 is open to visitors who come to see a strange mixture of botanical gardens, aquariums, and a museum of the lives of those early ‘90s Biospherians with their slightly bigger hair and loose clothes. Roy Walford, the first in-house doctor, described it as “the Garden of Eden on top of an aircraft carrier.”
But aircraft carriers have crews to maintain them. Biosphere 2 does not, and rust is becoming a problem. Down below is a cave-like aquarium with windows into the Biosphere 2’s mini ocean. Despite the murky appearance, the ocean isn’t dead. Tropical fish can be seen in the dark green gloom. No one has been feeding them, Matt Sullivan, the University of Arizona molecular and evolutionary biologist, said. He should know – the man is living over the underwater portion of Biosphere 2.
Sold to Developers
Back in the 90s, critics referred to Biosphere 2 as an example of philanthropists pushing science in wacky directions. But many scientists see it another way. Wally Broecker and others who have been with him throughout the journey believe in the potential of such research. But, as we know, science doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.
That said, Biosphere 2, and the 1,650 acres surrounding it, has recently been sold to a home developer for $50 million. The buyer, CDO Ranching & Development, L.P., said it will remain open to researchers and visitors… for now. Pinal County officials approved plans to construct 1,500 new homes and even a resort hotel on the land.
If you got this far, then you either give a sh*t about the earth or like all things outer space (or both). If the latter applies, then you should read the next story. It’s about the first-ever space crime…
Going through a divorce is one of the most emotionally draining and things a person can go through in his or her life. Add children to the equation, and the whole thing gets so much worse. The whole process is isolating, leaving many feeling lonely and at a loss. Now, that’s what happens to regular folk on the ground. Imagine what going through a divorce and custody battle would be like in outer space! Talk about isolating…
The private life of NASA astronaut Anne McClain became public when it was revealed that the one making the claim was actually McClain’s wife. This made McClain the first active astronaut of the LGBTQ+ community. McClain went up into outer space on a mission during a very stressful period in her life. This couple’s domestic troubles on Earth extended into outer space. And on her trip to the International Space Station in 2018, under all the pressure she was under, she made an ill-conceived decision that might end up making her the first-ever space criminal.
This is what happened…
Making it Up to Space
Senior Army Aviator and astronaut Anne McClain, from Spokane, Washington, always dreamed of exploring space ever since she could remember. As a toddler, she would tell her mother that she was destined for the cosmos. Well, it looks like it wasn’t just a childhood dream; McClain made her fantasy come true. In 2013, she was selected out of 6,000 applicants to make it up to space.
She was chosen as one of the eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class. After getting the call, she started the grueling Astronaut Candidate Training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. For anyone who knows, training for space is a very tough process, and it takes the most dedicated of individuals. And it turns out that McClain is one of those individuals.
Marrying Her Soulmate
Following the theme of self-actualization and living out personal dreams, McClain married her soulmate. She met and fell in love with former Air Force intelligence officer Summer Worden. McClain was on her way to getting everything she ever wanted, but she had her heart set on one more thing.
Aside from a loving relationship and making it up to space, McClain also wanted to be a mother. Worden was already a single mother before having met McClain and conceived her baby via in-vitro fertilization. The child was carried by a surrogate. After marrying Worden and getting to spend time with her son, McClain grew fond of the little guy and started to become interested in adopting him.
She Wanted to Adopt the Boy
McClain loved her wife’s then 4-year-old son so much that she took the little guy with her to a NASA spacesuit photo shoot (a photo that later went viral). She had known the boy since he was just 1 year old. So for a few years now, she was basically becoming his second mom, and both he and McClain loved their new bonding time.
The problem was that, even after their wedding in 2014, Worden outright forbid that her wife adopt her son. It sounds pretty harsh, right? They just got married, were in love, and McClain was getting along perfectly with the boy. So why wouldn’t Worden want her wife to be a second legal guardian of her son?
Divorce and Accusations
We don’t know for sure why her wife was adamant not to have her adopt her son. But the chances are, this is the reason their marriage started to crumble after just three years. The relationship became strained. It came to a point where McClain boldly accused Worden of assault. But for some reason, the case was dismissed.
McClain even alleged that Worden had an “explosive temper and was making poor financial decisions.” After all these fights and court dates, the couple finally split. Worden, who filed for divorce, denied the accusations, claiming that McClain devised an evil plot to take her child away. McClain practically begged the judge for joint custody of the child during the court proceedings in 2018.
In Space, In Agony
McClain, visibly in agony, told the court how she was present for the boy’s first steps and first words, making a case for herself as to why she should have rights to the child as well. She said they had “a very healthy and deep parental relationship.” But her cries fell on deaf ears, as the courts never scheduled a custody hearing.
In the midst of all this drama, from December 2018 to June 2019, McClain went forward with her space duties and performed as the International Space Station Flight Engineer for Expedition 58 and 59. The entire expedition lasted for seven months, yet for McClain, it felt like a century. She couldn’t help but feel tormented by the custody battle.
Crumbling Before Her Eyes
While up in outer space, McClain executed a bunch of biology, biotechnology, and physical experiments, as astronauts are meant to do on their missions. She also carried out two protracted spacewalks, which were a part of her training for a future space endeavor, which would be one that would make history. McClain was supposed to be on the very first all-female spacewalk in March 2019, alongside astronaut Christina Koch.
The brainy pair of astronaut women were chosen to repair batteries on the ISS. But unfortunately, there was a problem with the plan. The walk was later canceled due to NASA’s lack of medium-sized spacesuits. Despite the cancellation, McClain still trained for the mission. McClain felt as though everything she wanted was crumbling before her eyes.
Space Wasn’t Distracting Enough
For many people, the best way to get through a divorce is to distract yourself and stay focused on something. And you would think that being in space would be distracting enough! You would think that being occupied with her spacewalk training, occurring hundreds of miles above the earth, McClain would be distracted. But that simply wasn’t the case.
McClain couldn’t help but wallow over the nasty details of her divorce and the custody battle. Meanwhile, on earth, her ex-wife Summer Worden who was living in Kansas, was the other half of this battle, and she, too, had been involved in this bitter separation and parenting dispute for the past year. While her ex-wife was up in space, she started noticing something strange.
Meanwhile, On Earth
The last thing Worden expected was for her ex-wife to be snooping into her bank account from none other than outer space! Needless to say, she was surprised. She didn’t expect the woman in space to know about her spending habits, like buying a car and whether or not she could even afford it. The two had been in communication, actually.
And when the two spoke, she was confused, not to mention suspicious, by how McClain knew so much about her finances while being in another world, literally. Something just didn’t add up. And Worden had a hunch as to what was going on. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that the former intelligence officer figured it out.
She Was Snooping
It comes as no surprise that Worden, who earned graduate degrees in strategic intelligence and digital forensics, was detecting that someone had signed into her personal bank. There were details that stood out to her as curious. So Worden put her intelligence background to work and started doing some due diligence.
She asked her bank to find out the locations of the computers that had recently accessed her bank account, giving them her own login credentials. The bank got back to Worden with an answer. It turns out that one of the computers who accessed her account was from a network registered to NASA. And that’s when Worden knew that it was McClain, her estranged ex-wife that has been snooping.
Accused of Identity Theft
After some digging around, further evidence suggested that during the spacewalk training, McClain had tapped into Worden’s bank records. If the claims were indeed true, it would mean that Anne McClain committed the first-ever outer space crime. But in her state of mind, it’s highly unlikely that McClain even thought of that fact. She was just obsessed with her personal situation.
News got out to NASA, who then approached McClain. A furious McClain then emailed her former lover, saying: “They specifically mentioned threatening emails from orbit, and accessing bank accounts — not sure where that info comes from.” Worden, shocked by what she was reading in her email, wasn’t up for debating anything. She filed a complaint, accusing McClain of identity theft and improper access to her private financial records.
She Just Wanted to Make Sure
McClain later acknowledged that she had accessed Worden’s bank account from space, insisting through her lawyer that she was merely steering the couple’s still-connected finances. To clarify, McClain said she never used or moved any of Worden’s funds. She clearly made it look harmless (and maybe her intentions were!), but Worden felt differently.
McClain’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, spoke kindly about McClain to media. In an interview with The New York Times, she said McClain looked through the account to make sure that Worden’s son, who McClain helped raise, was properly being cared for. McClain claimed that she was granted permission to do this throughout their relationship. And so she didn’t think it would result in such an outpour that she continued.
The First Wrongdoing in Space?
Investigators from the inspector general’s office contacted Worden and McClain, trying to get to the bottom of the issue, which was not to be taken lightly. It was a serious thing, considering that this allegation could result in the first allegation of criminal wrongdoing in space. “I was pretty appalled that she would go that far. I knew it was not okay,” Worden said.
The way it goes is this: there are five space agencies involved in the space station (from the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada). These agencies have long-established procedures set in place to handle any jurisdictional questions that come up revolving around astronauts of various nations orbiting Earth together. As it turns out, this particular case is the first of its kind.
Co-Operating on Earth
Mark Sundahl, the director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, said that to his knowledge, there has yet to be an allegation of a crime committed in space. NASA officials also said that they were unaware of any crimes committed in the space station. When McClain returned to Earth, she was subjected to a number of interviews.
McClain was submitted to an under-oath interview with the inspector general in 2019. She contended that she was simply doing what she had always done, emphasizing that it was with Worden’s permission, to ensure the family’s finances were in order. “She strenuously denies that she did anything improper,” her lawyer said, adding that McClain “is totally co-operating.”
It’s What She’s Always Done
McClain’s lawyer said the bank access to make sure that there was enough money in Worden’s account to pay bills and care for the boy they had both been raising. McClain continued using the password that she previously used. She never heard from Worden that the account was off-limits. According to McClain, the situation had remained the same.
Also, according to McClain, Worden had an explosive temper and was making bad financial decisions, hence her need to check the financial status – even from outer space. McClain’s posts on her Twitter account of her official NASA photos with the young, showing herself in her astronaut suit smiling with Worden’s son, were now deleted. “The hardest part about training for space is the 4-year-old I have to leave behind every time I walk out the door,” she said at the time.
No Outward Signs
The social media attention that McClain was receiving after her Twitter photos went viral only angered Worden further. She didn’t want McClain to claim to be the mother of her child. And that’s when Worden filed for divorce. McClain’s accusations of assault were denied as she said it was just a part of McClain’s bid to get control of the child.
Despite the turmoil that McClain felt while up in space, she didn’t portray any outward signs of trouble. Let’s not forget that the Washington native was a leader with a decorated past. She was a West Point graduate who then became a commissioned army officer and flew over 800 combat hours in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
She Was Shocked
All that was before joining NASA in 2013. She remained a lieutenant colonel in the army when she found herself on the list of candidates NASA was considering to be the first woman on the moon. This is clearly a woman who has the drive and wants to be all that she can be. Becoming a criminal is not on her radar. So when Worden accused her of identity theft, she was shocked.
Worden’s claim was even made even though she saw no sign of any money being moved or used at all. When the sudden switch happened a few days before the spacewalk, and NASA scrapped McCain’s role on the all-female spacewalk, McClain was crushed. They said it was a lack of available suits. But a NASA spokeswoman, Megan Sumner, said the decision was not influenced by any allegations about McClain.
A Little About Worden
Summer Worden is originally from Kansas, where she still lives with her son since her divorce from McClain. Worden had graduated from Canton Galva High School and then went to the University of Texas in San Antonio. She graduated in 1999 with a business degree and a minor in aerospace science. She was in the Air Force ROTC while in college.
After graduating college, Worden was an intelligence officer in the Air Force from 1999 to 2006. From 2000 to 2012, she was an intelligence operator and financial intelligence analyst, leading her team of analysts in tracking financial data and funds used by terrorists. Worden also worked at the National Security Agency from 2006 to 2008. She now works in real estate.
The Investigation is Still Going On
The Inspector General’s investigation into the accusations made by Worden against McClain is still ongoing. McClain tweeted on August 24, 2019: “There’s unequivocally no truth to these claims. We’ve been going through a painful, personal separation that’s now unfortunately in the media. I appreciate the outpouring of support and will reserve comment until after the investigation. I have total confidence in the IG process.”
NASA made a statement, mentioning that the agency doesn’t comment on personal or personnel matters. They did, however, say that “Lt Col. Anne McClain has an accomplished military career, flew combat missions in Iraq and is one of NASA’s top astronauts. She did a great job on her most recent NASA mission aboard the International Space Station.”
Outed as an LGBTQ+ Member
Aside from all the drama of the custody battle and the harsh accusations that could potentially make McClain a criminal in outer space, there is the issue that McClain was “outed” as a lesbian as a result of all. We should keep in mind that McClain never purposely came out as a lesbian astronaut. A question has thus been raised as to the future of LGBTQ+ astronauts.
Regardless of how her identity had been revealed, will this change how astronauts who are members of this community feel and will be treated? Tam O’Shaughnessy co-founded the science education company Sally Ride Science with her life partner, NASA astronaut Sally Ride. O’Shaughnessy spoke to Space.com about McClain and the difficulties that astronauts in the community may face.
“At first, I have to admit, I was just surprised that McClain was married to a woman, it still is a surprise to me sometimes…Sally would just be amazed that there is at least one female astronaut who’s married to a woman, and it’s OK at NASA,” O’Shaughnessy said. But once O’Shaughnessy realized that McClain didn’t come out publicly herself, her first positive reactions turned slightly sour.
“Oh, darn,” she said. O’Shaughnessy didn’t know McClain personally and was disappointed that McClain wasn’t open about her identity. Up until the New York Times reported on the accusations made by McClain’s now-estranged wife, McClain had yet to be “out” in official NASA communications. There were, though, a few LGBTQ+ media outlets that described her as a lesbian.
NASA’s Take On It
According to O’Shaughnessy, “Anne McClain is afraid of being who she really is because she’s afraid that she won’t get the exciting opportunities if people know that she’s in a gay relationship.” NASA made a statement detailing the agency’s policy on diversity and inclusion. According to the statement, “NASA recognizes that diversity and inclusion are integral to mission success at NASA.”
“Our commitment to these principles helps us to ensure fairness and equity in decision making. Diversity and inclusion also drives full engagement and the utilization of the talents, backgrounds, and capabilities of individuals and teams, allowing us to create and maintain a work environment where diverse ideas are highly valued and critical to effective technical solutions.”
The New York Times Made it a Big Deal
It was after Sally Ride’s death in 2012 that her relationship to O’Shaughnessy was revealed in her obituary. According to Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, told Buzzfeed: “The fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian will further help round out Americans’ understanding of the contributions of LGBT Americans to our country.” Yet, almost a decade later, McClain is the first and only active astronaut whose sexual orientation is public.
And that wasn’t even her intention. Oddly enough, when the New York Times published the report, it wasn’t the first-ever mention of her relationship with Worden. Other than the LGBTQ+ media outlets, Business Insider and other publications mentioned that McClain and Worden were married. But it was only with the Times that this information gained serious traction and became public knowledge.
Fear of Being Honest
O’Shaughnessy said that there’s a “fear that ‘if I’m honest about who I am and tell others that I’m gay, then maybe I won’t get promoted, maybe I won’t get to fly in space, maybe I won’t be able to walk on the moon.’ I think that if other astronauts are members of the LGBTQ community or aspiring men and women out there who are members of the community and who are applying to become an astronaut, you know my sense is they’re gonna be worried about being open.”
O’Shaughnessy made sure to mention that she still believes that, while this specific situation is personally difficult and complicated, the fact that there can be an astronaut who is publicly part of the LGBTQ+ community would be amazing and could be vitally important. If handled properly, she thinks this could really be an opportunity to further expand NASA’s inclusivity.
Even since the Times report was released in August 2019, there’s been some progress that may indicate that the times are indeed ‘a-changin.’ Just a month later, Shannon Gatta, a student from the University of Washington and a previous Brooke Owens Fellow, was the winner of the “Out Astronaut” contest. The contest tries to increase representation in STEM fields and in space by helping openly LGBTQ+ scientists become astronauts and fly in space.
Gatta, who identifies as pansexual, worked as a flight software engineer for NASA as well as a systems engineer for Ball Aerospace. She was a member of the U.S. military and served in Afghanistan, too. Gatta got a grant to attend the Space Academy at the Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The media firestorm was based solely on the accusation of one person; there was no supporting evidence. And it has now been revealed in a two-count federal indictment as “a blatant lie.” The claims by McClain’s ex were no doubt juicy, but a U.S. attorney found that they were also fictitious. McClain’s part in this saga is ending, but the scars will always remain.
An Astronaut Stranded in Space
This story of McClain and Worden and the first-ever criminal space activity is interesting in its own right, but outer space is full of interesting things. There is enough space in space (if you will) for incredible stories. If you want to know another personal story of an astronaut in space, you need to hear this.
In 1991, Sergei Krikalev was sent on a space mission. It was supposed to last just five months. However, that astronaut was stuck in space for 311 days. Due to the Soviet Union and money issues, Krikalev wasn’t able to come back when he was scheduled to. When Germany purchased a $24 million ticket to send Klaus-Dietrich as a replacement, Krikalev was finally able to return. But it was far from over.
It Was Supposed to be a 5-Month Mission
On May 9th, 1991, Sergei Krikalev launched on the Soviet Space Station Mir for a five-month mission. In January 1992, Krikalev was into his 8th month of the mission and had no idea when he was coming home. Krikalev was a flight engineer. He arrived at the Mir station with the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, and Anatoly Artsebarsky, who spent five months aboard Mir.
Sharman was conducting experiments and spent 8 days on Mir. Krikalev and Artsebarsky were ultimately left alone on the space station after Sherman returned to earth. The two of them used their time well. They conducted numerous scientific experiments and touched up the space station. On October 2, 1992, a relief crew bound for the Mir Station took off as planned to take over from Artsebarsky.
Date of Return?
Krikalev already agreed to extend his tour because Toktar Audakirov, the scheduled replacement, didn’t go through the training for long stays in space. Artsebarsky, Aubakirov, and Franz Viehböck, the first Austrian in space, all returned to earth on October 10th. Krikalev and Commander Aleksandr Volkov stayed aboard. The two of them were alone in the space station.
However, events at the U.S.S.R. down on earth put the date of their return in question. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the Mir Station. In 1976, the Mir project was initiated but a Soviet Decree. It took a decade before it made it to orbit. Mir was named after the Russian word for “peace.” The U.S.S.R. intended to use the spacecraft for long-term research projects.
Cramped in Space
In 1986, the Soviets launched the first of its modules. After the first module went into orbit, six more were added to complete the space station’s structure during the next decade. Mir orbited at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour during its run. The altitude was between 220 and 232 miles away from earth.
There, Mir could accommodate up to six people. However, usually, just three astronauts lived there at once because it was so cramped. The station experienced 16 sunrises and sunsets every single day. Therefore, they had to back out portholes to stimulate night so that they can fall asleep. The astronauts usually woke up at about 8:00 AM in the Moscow time zone.
Every Spare Moment
In the morning, they ate breakfast and got ready, which can take a few hours. Then they work until 1:00 P.M. before coming home for lunch and a workout. After eating lunch, the astronauts spend another three hours working and one more hour of exercise. After that, they finally eat dinner and have some free time.
Krikalev told Discover Magazine about his favorite pastimes in space. He said, “Every spare moment, we tried to look at the earth.” This is pretty interesting because most people can’t relate. In 1997 an American name Jerry Linenger spent time on Mir. He explained his experience of looking down on earth. “Today, I saw huge dust storms in the Sahara of Africa.”
The Longest Amount of Time
In 1988, Volkov and Krikalev finally came together. They were both abroad a spacecraft called Soyuz TM-7 when it was launched from Baikonur bound for the Mir station. Krikalev was on board as the engineer, and Volkov was the commander. Jean-Loup Chrétien was also abroad. In 1982, he was the first Frenchman in space.
The three Soviet astronauts were on board with three more newcomers for 25 days. This was the longest amount of time that six people lived in the cramped station. After 25 days, two of the original cosmonauts and Chrétien returned to earth. However, Krikalev, Volkov, and Valeri Polyakov stayed aboard. At least they had more room now. In April of 1989, the three of them returned to earth.
Two Down, Two to Go
Polyakov had been on board for 240 days, and Krikalev and Volkov spend 151 days in orbit, on their first time aboard Mir. Polyakov went aboard Mir for the second time in 1994 and spent 437 days in space! It was the longest amount of time a person has been away from earth at the time. After one mission on Mir, Krikalev decided to reenter training for a Mir project in 1990.
For this mission, Krikalev was part of the back-up crew. This meant that Krikalev could fly if someone from the original crew backs out. Since nobody dropped out, Krikalev stayed on earth during this mission. However, by December that year, Krikalev was already in training for another Mir mission. For this one, he was a first choice crew member and not a backup. His preparation included making up to ten spacewalks.
Coming to Replace Him
Engineer Musa Manarov and crew commander Viktor Afanasyev were already aboard Mir when Krikalev, Artebarsky, and Sherman joined. On May 26th, 1991, they all returned to earth except for Krikalev and Artsebarsky. During this time, Artsebarsky did six spacewalks and spent more than 33 hours outside the spacecraft. There was a crew scheduled to come to replace Krikalev and Artsebarsky in October.
However, the engineer who was supposed to take over for Krikalev didn’t have enough training for a long stay in space. Due to the situation that July, Krikalev agreed to extend his stay on Mir. The relief crew still took off in mid-October 1991 but, not to replace Krikalev. The three newcomers from the relief crew were, Commander Alexander Volkov, Austrian scientist Franz Viehböck, and from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Toktar Aubakirov.
Changes Down on Earth
Supposedly, the Austrian government paid soviets $7 million to get Viehböck aboard Mir. On October 10th, Viehböck, Aubakirov, and Artsebarsky returned to Earth. Volkov and Krikalev were the only ones left on Mir. However, events at the U.S.S.R. complicated their stay. That August, just one month after Krikalev had agreed to extend his mission, Russia kicked things off.
However, on August 19th, radical communists launched a military coup in Moscow because they were unhappy with the way things were going in the Soviet Union. Many changes washed over the Soviet Union building up to the coup attempt. Since 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev was the state leader. He oversaw reforms to the Soviet economy. Also, he was lessening the strict censorship that the U.S.S.R. had for years.
This resulted affected the space program. Many territories, including East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, overthrew their Soviet-supported communist government in 1989. However, in 1991, the Russian Communist party decided on one more attempt to roll back the Gorbachev reforms. Tanks were pushed into Red Square in Moscow. This attempt ended in failure just two days later.
However, it managed to destabilize what was left of the Soviet Union. By December that year, the Soviet Union was destroyed. Unfortunately, it led to putting the Soviet space program and Mir space station in question. This was because the spacecraft bound of Mir was launched from the Baikonur Kazakhstan base, one of the republics fighting for independence.
Kazakh on Board
The Soviet authorities agreed to send a Kazakh national to Mir in an attempt to keep Kazakhstan on board. Toktar Aubakirov was chosen and arrived on October 2nd, 1991. His stay aboard the space station was short. He went in place of an experienced astronaut that should have been the one to replace Krikalev.
Sergei Krikalev had been highly impacted by these events as 1991 continued, and things only got worse. On top of having already extended his original mission, there was no scheduled endpoint to his time on Mir. Krikalev admitted to Discover in 2016, that his prolonged stay in space was concerning. He was actually very stressed about how long he would be there.
Not Enough Money
Krikalev didn’t really understand what was happening. He kept being told that there wasn’t enough money to bring him back to earth. Mission control kept telling him to wait a bit longer. After another month passed, he kept getting the same answers. He said, “They say it’s tough for me – not really good for my health. But now the country is in such difficulty, the chance to save money must be the top priority.”
Krikalev expressed, “For us, it was totally unexpected. We didn’t understand what happened. When we discussed all this, we tried to grasp how it would affect the space program.” As expected, he was also worried about his own health and well-being. “Do I have enough strength? Will I be able to readjust for this longer stay to complete the program? Naturally, at one point, I had my doubts.”
The Washington Post ran a story in 1992 titled, “Left in Space: The Cosmonaut’s Endless Orbit.” At that point, Krikalev was orbiting the earth for about nine months. The article stated that Krikalev got to speak to his wife Elena each week. What they didn’t mention, however, was that she was actually working at mission control.
Elena described her thoughts about the call to Discover Magazine. She explained, “I tried never to talk about unpleasant things because it must have been hard for him. As far as I can make out, Sergei was doing the same thing.” I can only imagine how tough it was for Elena back at home. The couple even had a new baby.
He Deserves the Honey
In addition to the stress of being trapped in space, Krikalev wasn’t making that much money being an astronaut. He earned just 500 Rubles a month, which was equivalent to $2.50. If you think the situation couldn’t get worse, Russia’s economic situation was also negatively affecting Krikalev’s comforts aboard the Mir.
He loved honey, but sadly, there was a shortage in Russia. Instead, he received onions and horseradish as a substitute. The worst possible replacements for honey. Ultimately, a replacement team was on its way. Krikalev and Volkov would finally be able to go back to earth. On March 25th, 1992, both men arrived at their home planet safely, landing in Kazakhstan.
Home Sweet Home
However, by that time, Krikalev had circled the earth at least 5,000 times! He stayed in space for 311 days, which was a world record at the time. Unfortunately, he came back to his country, ruined. For Krikalev to return to earth, Germany paid $24 million to buy a ticket for Klaus-Dietrich Flade, his replacement. However, he finally made it back.
It was reported that Krikalev’s appearance was “Pale as flour and sweaty like a lump of wet dough” when he returned. Not bad for someone stuck in space for over 300 days. Incredibly, the fearless Krikalev didn’t seem to be too affected by his uncertain stay aboard the Mir. In October of 1992, NASA promised to launch a space shuttle with a Russian on board.
The Russian Space Agency chose Krikalev as one of the astronauts to train for this revolutionary partnership between Russia and America. In 1994 the shuttle launched, and Krikalev was aboard. An American named Robert Cabana and Krikalev were the first two astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 1998. He returned to the space station two more times and even did a six-month stay in 2005.
Krikalev spent a total of 803 days in space and was on six different missions by the time he retired as an astronaut. However, he continued to work as a director of manned spaceflight at Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation. Although Krikalev spent 311 days in space and unintentionally broke the record, he got beat a few years later. Valeri Polyakov beat him staying in space for 438 consecutive days. In 2018, Gennady Padalka also broke Krikalev’s record. Astronaut, Gennady Padalka, spent a total of 879 days in space, while Krikalev was there for 803 days. Still impressive if you ask me.