CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — He was never more than 250 miles from the home planet. But he might as well have been 10 million light years away.
That's how isolated NASA astronaut John Blaha felt after space shuttle Atlantis dropped him off at Russia's orbiting Mir station last fall for a four-month stay.
No longer was Blaha excited about being in space, as he'd been each time before.
"It was like a job on Earth: You go to work, but you're not really excited to be there," Blaha said in a recent interview, one month after returning to Earth.
He believes Atlantis' departure from Mir triggered his depression.
"I think the biggest thing was the vehicle that I was going to go home in was not attached to the Mir and that I could have been 10 million light years away from Earth," he said. "In other words, I felt we were that separated."
Unusually candid for an astronaut, especially for a former combat and test pilot, the 54-year-old retired Air Force colonel spoke openly and readily about his struggle with depression during his first month on Mir.
This is, after all, the only astronaut to allow himself to be carried off on a stretcher after a long spaceflight. Not only did Blaha feel like a magnet pulled down by Earth's gravity when Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 22, he wanted researchers to collect as much medical data as possible. Walking off the shuttle would have spoiled the effects of 128 days of weightlessness.
"I guess I've always thought that what we're trying to accomplish was more important than anything macho," Blaha explained.
NASA's goal: to learn how the body reacts to months of weightlessness and how the mind copes with months of seclusion. Mir is NASA's test bed for the future international space station and, possibly one day, for human expeditions to Mars.
One problem the Russians are still struggling with regarding potential Mars missions--they're the experts at long-duration spaceflight--is the psychological trauma that likely will result when Earth disappears from the crew's view.
"Let me tell you, you feel much more comfortable when you watch the Earth through the window," said Gen. Yuri Glazkov, deputy director of the cosmonaut training center outside Moscow and a former cosmonaut.
"When you looked at the Earth from the moon, it was very small, but still it was there," Glazkov said. "But when we fly to Mars, they won't be able to see this planet at all. It's going to disappear, you'll just see stars, and this is a tremendous psychological burden."
Having Earth in constant sight was little consolation to Blaha, once depression struck.
He began feeling depressed a week or two after Atlantis pulled away from Mir last September. He was only the third American to live on the Russian space station and had never been in orbit for more than 14 days in a row. His companions were two Russian cosmonauts he barely knew; his original crewmates had been replaced by backups for medical reasons.
With each passing day, Blaha found himself becoming obsessed with the world he'd left behind: his wife of 30 years, Brenda, back home in Houston, their three children and one grandchild.
Every night, Blaha pored over his family photo album with a longing that surprised and worried him. He'd never felt this way before.
He told himself: "This is crazy, John. You need to get happy that you're here again.
"I realized that I was clinging to Earth, so to speak. I psychologically cut the cords, if you will, with all those things that were on the planet that I couldn't have.
"I talked myself into that change. Once I did, then I really enjoyed the Mir space station. I was happy to get up in the morning and go to work."
The about-face occurred a month or so into his mission.
Blaha still loved getting e-mail messages and letters from his wife and children and having video conferences with them, but the contact was no longer a fixation. "I would forget it. I would get back to thinking, 'Hey, the Mir is my home,' " he recalled.
Dr. Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, said it's normal to feel homesick in orbit, even depressed. He's conducting the first-ever mood and behavior study of U.S. and Russian space crews and ground controllers.
"If you add to it the cultural difference and being around people who are speaking another language that you aren't fluent in, it just adds to the stress and makes the adjustment a little more difficult," Kanas said.
Indeed, Blaha told the shuttle astronauts who brought him back that he sometimes felt like "the odd man out" on Mir.
Blaha shared his "deep personal feelings" with his Mir replacement, Dr. Jerry Linenger, when the two swapped places in January, as well as with the three other U.S. astronauts who will live on the Russian station over the next 1 1/2 years.
While Blaha is glad he went to Mir--physically, he feels almost back to normal--he wouldn't do it again. Not at age 54.
"I left home in 1994 [to train]," he said. "I returned in January 1997. That's a big investment. That's what I would not repeat."