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ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s not often credit union conference attendees leave an opening session with tears in their eyes, but that’s exactly what happened at ULTRADATA’s annual users conference. With patriotism running high, astronaut Jerry Linenger’s recount of some of the most perilous times an astronaut has ever spent in space stirred emotions during his keynote speech. In 1997, Linenger spent five harrowing months on the problem-ridden Russian space station Mir. Linenger isn’t one to back down from challenges. He graduated third in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy and went on to become an M.D. and earn two master’s degrees and a doctorate. He is an accomplished triathlete, sailor, skier, scuba diver, and, of course, astronaut. When NASA came calling to see if Linenger would like to partner with Russian cosmonauts on Mir, Linenger accepted the challenge. It wasn’t an easy decision. It required having to move his wife and young son John to Russia for nearly two years. This was in the mid-90s with the Cold War still fresh in the minds of Americans and Russians. Many other astronauts with young children decided against Mir. Linenger did not and said his 132 days aboard the creaky space station changed his life forever. Linenger’s wife became pregnant again and the thought of leaving a pregnant wife and a baby son behind in Russia of all places put a lot of burden on his soul, but he honored his commitment. “I knew I was leaving a lot on my wife.” Linenger was not only confined to a space station for five months, he was confined with two cosmanauts who couldn’t speak English. Having never been so isolated in his life, it was a time of introspection. Daily he would question his life and whether he was being the best person he could be. He recommended that attendees ask themselves the hard questions about life, but not for five months like him, that’s not natural. Though he couldn’t communicate well with the cosmonauts, the three men came to become friends, relying on each other and facing challenge after challenge side by side. There were many times when Linenger almost died. Probably the worst incident was when a fire broke out on Mir. Linenger was a trained firefighter, but in space the rules are different. Staying low doesn’t help, because heat doesn’t rise, it dissipates equally in the air. The initial challenge was getting oxygen. The first oxygen mask Linenger reached for failed, like so many other things on Mir. Discouraged and thinking he was going to die, Linenger said surprisingly he was able to come to terms with death. “I said Jerry this is a strange place to die, up here over the earth, but we all take our last breath some time, it’s part of being human.” As a doctor, he knew what would happen. He would tunnel vision, black out and die from smoke inhalation. With thick smoke all around, he couldn’t see the second oxygen mask. He went on his memory and felt his way to it – this time it did not fail, and his acceptance of death left him as he thought of his son. Linenger described having a sinking, empty, awful feeling in his gut at that moment, not from the raging fire or prospect of death, but from the fact that he hadn’t left anything behind for his son. Not material things, but thoughts, what his beliefs were and what he wished for his son in life. He thought of not being there for his son as his father was for him. “Sorry John I kept saying.” With fresh oxygen and thoughts of his son, Linenger said he turned and looked at the fire anew and was determined to beat it. Easier said then done. Going through fire extinguisher after fire extinguisher the fire wasn’t going out. One of the main problems was, in space, fire extinguishers don’t contain all the chemicals they do on earth, they are water-based. The men, unable to see clearly, worked together through touch and hand signals working the extinguishers. Running low on extinguishers, finally the fire started to weaken and actually reversed its course, essentially swallowing itself. Yet the men weren’t out of harms way yet. The smoke hung stubbornly in the air, and their oxygen tanks were running out. They fell very still and tried to slow their breathing and conserve their air. It was a race between the air being filtered and the oxygen tanks running out. Finally one cosmonaut’s tank went empty. The cosmonaut removed his mask and was able to breath. From that day forward when the space station lined up for a data feed with Russia each day, Linenger sent letters back to his son talking to him about life. Those letters eventually turned into one of his two books, “Letters from Mir, An Astronaut’s Letters to His Son.” Linenger recounted other dangerous moments and the pride he felt in representing the United States on what was becoming a potentially doomed mission. Through it all Linenger kept up his experiments, and his spirits. He said Americans need to understand that astronauts believe in what they are doing for the country and man kind, and that even though the Columbia accident was tragic, the astronauts died doing what they wanted. He said much of space flight is so precise that astronauts are well aware that a tragic accident can happen on any flight. Being in space so long does terrible things to the human body. Muscle and bone loss can be dramatic. By the time the mission was nearing its end, Linenger’s bone composition was that of an older woman suffering from osteoporosis. Cosmonauts are routinely carried off in stretchers after returning to earth from long stays on Mir. Just trying to lift one’s arms after so long in space is a significant challenge as the earth’s gravity is a 180 degree turn from freewheeling space where Linenger slept on the ceiling strapped in with Velcro. Linenger was monitored closely by mission control during reentry. He said the worst airplane turbulence is nothing compared to reentry on the shuttle, where the gyrations are violent and the heat is intense. When the shuttle landed and the hatch finally opened, they were ready to wheel Linenger off in a stretcher as was the norm for those spending so long in space. Linenger said no. “I said I’m a U.S. Naval Officer, representing my country, I’m walking off.” Fortunately the person he told that to was one of his old friends who knew not to question his determination. Linenger hobbled off the shuttle and somehow made it to his son and wife. He told attendees if they are going to bed at night worried about problems or the challenges they face, they aren’t living right. No matter what, said Linenger, go to bed at peace with yourself and know that problems can be overcome. But Linenger’s primary message was that a human being’s ability to adapt to just about any situation is one of our greatest strengths. And as his five dangerous and isolated months on Mir proved, he believes people can endure longterm hardship, and use it to their advantage. [email protected]

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