Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Scary Fires, Crashes, and Glitches - Isn't That Just Life in Russia? the Mir Dilemma: Would You Go Up There?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Scary Fires, Crashes, and Glitches - Isn't That Just Life in Russia? the Mir Dilemma: Would You Go Up There?

Article excerpt

With the dire daily reports from the aging Mir space station, you might wonder why a Russian, let alone an American, would choose to blast off into space just to spend months fixing one mechanical problem after another. Wouldn't that be a waste of time at best and a meaningless deadly risk at worst?

But isn't that just life - in Russia, anyway?

Contemplating what kind of nerve it takes to risk a visit to Mir, I see fundamental differences in approach between an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut. It puts me in mind of a simple parallel - driving in Russia. Not long ago, planning to attend a conference in St. Petersburg, I was debating whether to take the train or undertake the long drive from Moscow. "But you'll be going with Nanette," said a friend, referring to an American acquaintance. "She can share the driving." "I would never let an American drive my car," I said decisively, and resolved to travel by train. It's not that Americans are bad drivers. In fact, an average American has much more driving experience than an average Russian. It's just that, when Americans drive, they tend to look forward and up: at other cars and at road signs. A person who is used to driving in Russia looks forward and down: at other cars and at potholes, objects in the middle of the road, open manholes, and a variety of other obstacles. This summer there was a large pit in the archway that is the only path out of my courtyard. You had to drive on the sidewalk to bypass it. The unmarked pit, three by six feet and six feet deep, seemed either oddly symbolic or morbidly practical. That pit always somehow makes me think of Mir. You see, sight is not the only sense tuned differently for Russian drivers than the Americans. The Russian driver has keen hearing. Yes, of course, any driver can detect a knock in the engine or the treacherous whistle of a loose belt. But the experienced Russian driver can hear an unattached part of the car moving under the hood. A friend who got a brand new Tavria, a cheap Ukrainian subcompact, figured out within a few days that the factory had failed to attach the engine: The car ran fine, but it made a banging noise at take-off, when the engine slid back toward the passenger compartment. …

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