SPACE CENTER, Houston -- Without fuss or fanfare, Bill Shepherd has emerged as a Space-Age Ulysses, journeying between the United States and Russia on a seemingly endless quest to orbit.
His destination is the international space station, his mission to serve as its first commander. But space-station construction has bogged down in politics and economics, and so has his expedition.
It's more than two years late.
Throw in 2 1/2 years that Shepherd spent training for the original launch date. By the time he flies, the effort will have swallowed at least five of his 50 years. No other astronaut in NASA history comes close to prepping so long for a space mission.
Shepherd doesn't complain. He quietly recounts the story of the U.S. military officer sent into Cuba in 1898 at the onset of the Spanish-American War. Without flinching or whining, the officer successfully delivered a message from President McKinley to a Cuban revolutionist.
"This guy went on this huge hunt through swamps and jungles and all this stuff," explains Shepherd, a Navy captain. "So there's this Navy phrase, 'taking a message to Garcia,' which means just put your head down and get your elbows moving.
"That's kind of what this has turned into."
Shepherd cannot fly with his cosmonaut crew until the Russians launch a service module with life-support systems. That module should have soared in April 1998, and Expedition One - Shepherd's expedition - should have swiftly followed.
But Russia's economic collapse stalled work on the module and kept the space station pieces on Earth until late 1998. Then Russian rocket problems prevented takeoff.
"It is kind of endless. `Byeskonyechniy' would be the Russian word," Shepherd says with a sigh. He looks and sounds dead tired as he sips a soda and crunches the ice.
"There's plenty of blame to go around." Another sigh. "The politics of the United States and the politics of Russia are wrapped up in what we're doing, and it's not the way technical people like to do business."
Assuming the Russians launch their service module in July as planned, assuming it docks to the space station two weeks later, assuming two space shuttles and two unmanned cargo ships follow in quick succession, then Expedition One can soar.
Ever optimistic, NASA is targeting an Oct. 30 liftoff for the three-man crew aboard a Soyuz rocket in Kazakstan. Shepherd will be only the second American to ride a Russian rocket; the first was astronaut Norman Thagard, en route to Mir in 1995. Like Thagard, Shepherd will come back American-style, on a space shuttle, following a four-month stay at the space station.
Even Halloween in space seems remote. "I'm not holding my breath," Shepherd concedes. And he doubts he would have signed up if he'd known back in 1995 that he'd still be waiting in 2000.
How long will he wait?
"I'll probably know what that day is when I drive home and find my clothes in the front yard," Shepherd says. He laughs, but he doesn't sound like he's joking.
For the entire 4 1/2 years Shepherd's been married, he has commuted between Johnson Space Center in Houston and Star City cosmonaut headquarters outside Moscow. "This is about all she's known," he says of wife Beth, a specialist in strength and rehabilitation who works with astronauts.
The Shepherds have no children. But both of the astronaut's younger crew mates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, do.
So, says Shepherd, "Every time I think about how hard this is, there are lots of folks who are doing this who have more significant family separations. Kids don't sign up for this."
Neither do moms.
Confides Shepherd: "My mom's not taking this well."
NASA higher-ups say they respect the astronauts who have volunteered, or been volunteered, to serve on the space station. But their sympathy goes only so far.
"This is not an amusement ride at Disneyland," says NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. "This is the space program, and the space program is tough stuff."
As space station manager Jim Van Laak points out, everyone who's involved in the program - not just the crews - is pulling hard. But he acknowledges, "Some of us are operating closer to our limits than others."
Of the six Americans and six Russians currently training for long space station stints, Shepherd is just a few months shy of being the oldest. He runs and lifts weights to stay in shape. He has turned the basement of his Star City townhouse into a gym and social club.
Strength has always suited Shepherd.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Shepherd first served as a diver for the Navy's underwater demolition team and a Navy SEAL. He became an astronaut in 1984 and joined three short space shuttle flights. He moved into space station management in 1993 just as the Russians joined the project.
In late 1995, Shepherd got word: He'd be heading back into orbit, as commander of the first permanent space station crew. The job would no doubt propel him from management obscurity into media spotlight - once he soars.
One of the original Russian crew members quickly bowed out, preferring to fly to Mir's rescue instead. A younger and less experienced cosmonaut, Gidzenko, stepped in. So training resumed.
Year after year after year after year.
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