Norm Thagard: The U.S. Astronaut Who Became a Cosmonaut

Norman Thagard
U.S. astronaut Norm Thagard exercising on board the Russian space station Mir during his 115-day stint aboard. NASA

If there was ever a mission where everything went wrong in space but everybody still lived to talk about it, that would be the trip astronaut Norman F. Thagard took to the Russian space station Mir. He and his fellow cosmonauts fought off fire, computer glitches, and wayward robots to come back home safely and teach others about their experiences.

Norm Thagard came to NASA not only as a physician, but was a former Marine Corps officer, aviator, and life sciences researcher. He was the first American astronaut to fly to space aboard a Russian launch vehicle, and the first ever to fly aboard Mir. That also made him an American cosmonaut, and he noted that his commanding officer while aboard was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian Air Force. For Thagard, it was an interesting, momentous, and extremely satisfying trip with five other Russians crammed aboard a tiny space station. Yet, he proved himself as a good crew mate and his accomplishments while on board contributed to the success of later missions involving long-duration space flight.

From the Ground Up

Norman E. Thagard was born in 1943 and grew up in Florida. He studied engineering in college, and went into pre-med studies before joining the Marines in 1966 as an aviator. He flew 166 combat missions in Viet Nam until 1970, when he returned to the U.S. He next worked as an aviation weapons officer in South Carolina before leaving to continue his education in engineering and working toward a degree in medicine.

Thagard joined NASA in 1978 and trained to become a mission specialist. Typically, astronauts doing this job are responsible for a wide variety of tasks related to whatever experiments were to take place onboard the shuttles. Once the shuttles began launching he served on five flights aboard Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis. On board these missions he worked on satellite deployments, including Getaway Specials, conducted a number of life science experiments in medicine, as well as in geophysics and astrophysics. He was also instrumental in the launch and deployment of the Magellan spacecraft, which went on to orbit and do radar mapping of the planet Venus, and served as Payload Commander on the Discovery mission. His main responsibility was to oversee experiments in microgravity and how it affected different organisms transported to space for the mission.

Becoming a Cosmonaut

On March 14, 1985, Thagard became the first U.S. astronaut to lift off on a Russian rocket to the space station Mir. He spent 115 days onboard the station, working on a variety of experiments. While onboard, he conducted life science experiments on his fellow passengers, monitoring them for body changes during an extended period in a micro-gravity environment. At the time he flew, the Russians were the undisputed champions of long-duration space flight, and both NASA and the Russian space agency were interested in learning about the effects such long-term missions would have for missions to the planets and the upcoming International Space Station (which was in the planning stages at that time). The crew also did some IMAX filmmaking while aboard.

Not everything was fun and games aboard Mir during Thagard's residency there. Problems plagued the station, including an onboard fire, a robot ship crashed into the laboratory module where Thagard's experiments were conducted, a freezer broke down, and a computer fried. Despite these and other setbacks, he completed most of his work and set a record at the time for longest-duration period in space by an American. He returned to Earth aboard space shuttle Atlantis, which rendezvoused with the station to pick him up. This was part of the Shuttle-Mir program, which brought Russia and the U.S. together to collaborate on joint missions in space. It transported astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the Russian space station during the four-year-long program. Mir was de-orbited in 2001 due to funding shortfalls.


Norm Thagard left NASA in 1996 and took on a faculty post at Florida A&M - Florida State University college of engineering and was instrumental in setting up the Challenger Learning Center in Tallahassee. He has been honored with many awards, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2004, and continues to share his experiences as an astronaut with students and the public. He is a licensed physician, and a pilot with well over 2,200 hours of flight time. He has remained interested in the physical effects of space on humans. He lives in Florida with his spouse and three sons.