After 4-1/2 difficult months on Mir, American astronaut Michael Foale reveled in the company of his family and such worldly delights as pizza and chocolate chip cookies.
“Very glad to be holding these children,” a weary but happy Foale said late Monday, six hours after space shuttle Atlantis delivered him back to Earth.
Five-year-old Jenna and 3-year-old Ian jumped into their father’s lap as soon as they saw him. She squirmed and giggled; he could barely stay awake.
“He has grown twice. You’ve become a rebel, rebel, rebel,” Foale said, cuddling his son. “And Jenna has become a little lady - sometimes,” adding the last word after she squealed with delight.
The 40-year-old British-born astrophysicist, experiencing the tug of gravity for the first time since he rocketed away to the Russian space station in May, said he felt “not particularly heavy but a little uncertain in terms of walking and balance.”
“I probably want to get strong enough to be able to go outside and walk. That’s going to be my goal for the next day,” he said.
Atlantis and its seven-member crew returned from the aging space station one day late. Thick clouds had prevented the shuttle from landing Sunday evening and kept Foale in orbit for a 145th day, second among Americans to Shannon Lucid’s 188-day Mir mission last year.
Shortly after Atlantis rolled to a safe stop, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin called from Italy to welcome Foale back to the planet and congratulate him on “a wonderful job.”
Foale replied he was doing fine. Several minutes later, he walked with assistance from the shuttle into an airport-style people-mover and underwent the first of many medical tests. And soon after that, he was reunited with wife, Rhonda, and their children at NASA’s crew quarters.
Foale moved from the battered Mir into Atlantis on Sept. 28, one day after the shuttle arrived with his replacement, a new computer, patches for holes punched in the hull by a cargo ship and other urgently needed supplies.
Another computer, for backup, and other supplies are due to arrive on an unmanned cargo ship Foale’s place on Mir was taken by American physician David Wolf, whose four-month stay was approved by NASA at practically the last minute following a fierce public debate over the safety of the 11-1/2-year-old Mir.
Some members of Congress and NASA’s own inspector general were alarmed by a raging fire aboard Mir in February, the cargo ship collision in June and frequent computer breakdowns and power losses.
Foale was visibly upset during a televised NASA interview as he recalled the aftermath of the collision. His commander at the time, Vasily Tsibliyev, had developed an irregular heartbeat from all the stress and was barred by Russia’s Mission Control from taking part in an internal spacewalk to restore power to the stricken space station.
Tsibliyev was blamed, in large part, for the crash.
“He felt responsible for the whole accident,” Foale said, “which I don’t quite feel.” The astronaut paused, shook his head and looked down. “No, this is too hard to talk about.” The camera quickly panned away.
Rhonda Foale said she’s relieved her husband no longer is on Mir. Yet despite all the problems, she said he’s glad he did it and so is she.
“It was really rewarding for him,” she said. “I’m looking forward to hearing the stories, having communication where we can really communicate with each other with no delays and static and a thousand people listening.”
She is already planning a vacation for the four of them.
“Somewhere south, either Mexico or the Caribbean or the Keys,” she said, “somewhere where Mike can get in the sun and the wind and the waves and splash around.”