Jerry Linenger is one of more than a dozen Michiganians who have been (or still are) astronauts. Born in 1955 in Eastpoint (a Detroit suburb), Linengar graduated from East Detroit High School and earned a degree from Wayne State University. After many years of hard work, schooling and experience in the military, Linengar was accepted into the U.S. astronaut program in August 1992.
On January 12, 1997, Linengar and a crew of six astronauts blasted off aboard the space shuttle Atlantis for the Russian space station, Mir. (Mir is a Russian word that can mean both peace and world.) From 1986 until 2001, Mir was the Earth’s first long-term research station where astronauts from many countries worked and lived.
When Linengar arrived at Mir, he learned quickly that despite careful planning, unexpected things happen. On his forty-second day aboard Mir, a fire broke out. “The smoke was immediate. It was dense. . . . I could see a shadowy figure of the person in front of me . . . but I really couldn’t make him out,” Linengar said. The crew rushed to put on oxygen masks. The commander fought for 90 long seconds to get the fire out. Even then, the module was dark with smoke and soot, and the temperature reached 100 degrees. “You can’t escape the smoke. You can’t just open a window to ventilate the room,” another crewmember later commented.
On April 29, Linengar went outside the space station for a five-hour spacewalk. He tested a new spacesuit, installed monitors and performed other tasks that he had spent countless hours practicing. The spacewalk was an amazing experience and the most poignant memory from his time in space. Linengar later recalled, “You are not in water, but on a cliff. . . . The whole cliff is falling and you are on it. You convince yourself that it is okay . . . to be falling because when you look out you see no bottom. You just fall and fall . . . as the cliff rotates, you feel as if you reached the crest of a roller coaster. . . . You flip headfirst out of your seat . . . you want to flip back upright. You can’t. You decide it is okay to be diving headfirst into nothing.”
Linengar returned to Earth on May 24, 1997, after spending 132 days aboard Mir. At the time, it was the longest time spent in space by any American male. At a speed of 18,000 miles per hour, he logged 50 million miles around the Earth–that’s 2,000 orbits! Jerry Linenger retired from NASA in 1998 and currently lives in northern Michigan.
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, read Michigan History and Michigan History for Kids magazines. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.
For more about Jerry Linengar, check out his bio from NASA, a Q&A with Jerry from Nova, Jerry’s letters to his son from Mir (which later became one of his books) and the Wikipedia entry for Jerry Linenger.