NASA Public Affairs Office

Getting the Shuttle-Mir story out to the public was an interesting story all in itself.

On the one hand, NASA’s Public Affairs Office had an institutional tradition going back to the Project Mercury days of the late 1950s and early 1960s of providing timely information and access to the international news media. Every U.S. human space launch had been televised - live. On the other hand at the time of Shuttle-Mir, the Russian space program was just emerging from the Soviet era of strictly controlled information. It had neither the tradition nor all the needed physical capabilities for providing for the functioning of a "free press."

Over time, the U.S. and Russian public affairs officials developed a good working relationship and mutual respect. In particular, the two 1997 contingencies of the Mir fire and the Progress collision actually helped to improve and expand openness and cooperation. In some ways, the media’s access to Moscow operations became more open than their access to operations in Houston.

A NASA/Russian Public Affairs Plan was developed and signed prior to NASA-1 Mir Astronaut Norm Thagard’s 1995 flight onboard a Soyuz capsule to the Mir. This plan outlined the exchange of information, photographs, video, biographies, preflight and mission press conferences, exchange of in-flight television, in-flight interviews, written status reports, protocol activities, guest operations, receptions, commemorative items, and a contingency plan.

NASA placed Public Affairs representatives on a rotating basis at Mission Control Center-Moscow (MCC-Moscow) for Thagard’s 105-day Mir mission (March 16-June 29, 1995). When Atlantis (STS-76) launched with NASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid on March 22, 1996, NASA Public Affairs Officers started a continuous presence in MCC-Moscow. By June 1997 (the month of the Progress collision), a permanent Public Affairs Office (PAO) was located at MCC-Moscow and remained in placed through the end of the Shuttle-Mir program. Kathleen Maliga from NASA Headquarters was the first permanent PAO in Moscow.

From the beginning of the program, the NASA/Russian Public Affairs Working Group (WG-1) was responsible for the planning, development, and execution of all aspects of public affairs. This included the issuing of press releases, status reports and press kits; the scheduling and conduct of press conferences; the distribution of television and photographs; the coordination and execution of interviews by media and educational organizations with crew members on both the Space Shuttle and Mir; guest operations; and the selection and logistical coordination of commemorative items such as plaques and flags. In addition, PAO assisted with the coordination of the international television and video crews who documented space hardware and astronaut/cosmonaut training, and observed mission control operations in both the U.S. and Russia.

NASA and MCC-Moscow Public Affairs representatives also finalized the weekly in-flight PAO events with U.S. astronauts onboard Mir. Through the eyes of television cameras on the Mir, audiences throughout the world watched a variety of crew activities on the Russian station, such as spacecraft dockings and spacewalks.

The value of having a PAO at MCC-Moscow became clearly evident in 1997, when the world’s news media paid increased attention to Mir and its fire during NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger’s mission and the Progress collision during NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale’s mission. To coordinate the timely release of accurate information to the news media in Moscow, the NASA PAO worked closely with the NASA Operations Lead, with Russian Public Affairs representatives, and with Public Affairs officials at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, and at Johnson Space Center in Houston. This was a challenge for both the American and Russian space programs, especially with the time zone difference between Moscow and the U.S.

NASA and MCC-Moscow management held news briefings on an almost daily basis after the Progress collision. NASA released daily written status reports for weeks following the collision.

Debra Rahn co-chaired the Public Affairs WG-1 with Dr. Valerie Udaloy, beginning in early 1994. In her Oral History, Rahn said that in some ways the media had more access to Russian space facilities than it had to NASA’s, particularly in the area of astronaut training.

"Typically," Rahn said, "NASA does not permit U.S. news media to come in and cover astronaut training because it's too disruptive. We document it [the training] and make it available."

Furthermore, Mission Control Center-Moscow was set up with a balcony overlooking the control center. According to Rahn, "There’s no partition or glass between the balcony and the ground controllers down below. So they [the Russians] let the press and the VIPs mix during major events, which is something that typically we [in NASA] keep separate."

Another difference between NASA and the Russian space program was the Russian practice of charging the media for access to the Russian facilities for interviews and tours. Working Group 1 discussed this issue on several occasions. According to Rahn, "Basically we agreed to disagree." A compromise was reached in which the Russians would not charge the media for access to the American astronauts. However, the Russians continued charging the media for access to Russian facilities and personnel.

The biggest challenge, Rahn said, may have been the eight-hour time difference between the U.S. East Coast and Moscow, "...and so when we [woke] up in Washington, DC, a lot of things [had] already happened.

"Things have been on the wires, news reports on television.... A lot of people — in Washington, in the Administration, in Congress — wanted to know everything as it happened. But with the eight-hour time difference, we were always playing catch-up first thing in the morning," said Rahn.

"After the collision, we changed our weekly Mir status reports to daily status reports, and we had press conferences frequently with (Shuttle-Mir Program Manager) Frank Culbertson, ... which were very useful in keeping the news media up to date. We tried to give everyone the latest information...."

Debra Rahn said that, "All in all, I think that we did work very well with the Russians on this.... It’s always very difficult in time of contingencies, to make sure that the information is accurate. And, it may be accurate at the moment, but then you get more information later that changes the initial information...."

From a Public Affairs perspective according to Rahn, because the Progress collision happened towards the latter part of the Shuttle-Mir program, "...we had established a very good working relationship with [the Russians] and a lot of trust. And I think that because of that, ... things worked out relatively [as] well as they could [have] under the circumstances."

Read Debra Rahn's Oral History