Astronaut John Blaha returned to Earth on Wednesday after a punishing four months aboard the Russian space station Mir, and instead of playing the hero, allowed himself to be carried off shuttle Atlantis on a stretcher.
It was the first time an astronaut agreed to be carried off after a long spaceflight. The decision delighted NASA doctors, who wanted to gauge immediately the effects of long-term weightlessness on the body, including dizziness and weakened bones and muscles.
Paramedics gently carried the weak Blaha onto an airport-style people-mover minutes after Atlantis landed with its crew of six. He was greeted by hugs and kisses from his wife of 30 years, Brenda, and their 23-year-old daughter, Carolyn.
The 54-year-old former combat and test pilot said he was “absolutely stunned” at how heavy he felt when Atlantis landed and how wobbly he still felt hours later.
“I mean, its like I can’t believe it. I feel very wobbly. I don’t feel like I’m capable of walking very good,” he said. “I’ve improved a little bit. But right after wheels stop, when the orbiter stopped, I couldn’t even raise my leg an inch. It wouldn’t even move. It felt very heavy.”
He didn’t mind shedding his Right Stuff image for the sake of science.
“That was totally John’s decision” to be carried out, said astronaut John Grunsfeld. “He was very much into understanding long-term effects of spaceflight and wanted the doctors to get the best possible data they could. I think he’s a real trouper.”
Blaha’s two predecessors on Mir - including biochemist Shannon Lucid, who was up a record six months, shunned stretchers and walked off the shuttle even though doctors preferred they didn’t.
To ease the crush of gravity, Blaha returned lying down in a shuttle seat. It will be weeks and probably months before his body is back to normal.
During Atlantis’ 10-day mission, the shuttle also dropped off Blaha’s replacement aboard Mir, Dr. Jerry Linenger, for a four-month stay in orbit.
Blaha was still in his orange flight suit in the peoplemover undergoing medical tests when he was greeted by his wife and daughter in a quick reunion arranged by NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin.
“Am I ever glad to see you!” Blaha said.
“I went and pecked him on the cheek and he said, ‘I want a REAL kiss and a REAL hug,”’ Brenda Blaha said, laughing. “So we did. … It was great.”
Brenda Blaha said her husband seemed a little weary, and his hair was the longest she had ever seen, but he was in great spirits.
“He’s been talking up a storm,” added his daughter.
Blaha admitted to getting depressed early in his 128-day mission - he missed his wife more than he ever imagined - but eventually adjusted well to isolated station life. He circled Earth more than 2,000 times and traveled 49 million miles since rocketing into orbit aboard Atlantis last September.
“The first month I was on orbit, I had to make a transition,” Blaha explained. “I kept longing for things that I loved here, and I finally decided I had to forget them. When I did that, then I loved being on the station. I had to psychologically say, ‘Maybe I’m never going to see them,’ and I had to work at just forgetting them. And I had to work at forgetting Brenda.”
“I was surprised at how much I would miss this person standing here,” he said, holding his wife’s hand. “I don’t want to do that again.”