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Roger, Houston: The food stinks and I miss my family

From the beginning, America's astronauts were Gary Cooper in a spacesuit: unflappable, laconic, colorless and appealing because of it.

Now comes NASA's longest-flying space traveler, astronaut-physician Norman Thagard, who has been astonishingly frank _ by the space agency's standards at least _ about the hassles of his nearly four months in orbit.

A few Thagard observations:

The food is blah, and it's a pain to record the meals for the doctors on the ground. Hardly any world news gets sent up. Days go by without being able to talk to anyone in English. It gets real lonely without the family around.

"The cultural isolation is extreme," the 52-year-old astronaut said earlier this week. "If I'd been looking at six months, I would have been really worried at about three months that I wasn't going to make it."

Okay, it's not exactly Oprah Winfrey stuff. But by NASA's standards, it's unburdening one's soul.

All this ends Friday, when Thagard returns to Earth on Atlantis after a record 115 days in space. Nearly all that time was spent on the Russian space station Mir with two Russian cosmonauts, who also are coming back on the shuttle.

"I hope my family will be there and I'd like to give my wife and my kids lots of hugs and kisses," Thagard said in a TV interview Wednesday, one day after Atlantis undocked from Mir.

After 34 years and 100 U.S. human spaceflights, no one has ever provided _ at least publicly _ such a frank view of space travel as Thagard.

Bearers of The Right Stuff weren't supposed to talk about the emotional or inconvenient side of space. The test pilots who blazed the way into space during the 1960s were always "ready to go fly" and do what needed to be done. Nothing, not even the near-fatal Apollo 13 flight in 1970, seemed to faze them.

Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, who's portrayed by Tom Hanks in the new movie Apollo 13, recalls with amusement the gasps in Mission Control when he uttered a variation on a common Anglo-Saxon expletive for the whole world to hear.

And there was you-know-what to pay when he questioned aloud whether the accident might kill the entire Apollo program; he didn't realize his mike was on.

Because of the astronauts' even demeanor, Hollywood had to jazz up some of the scenes inside the crippled Apollo 13 moonship to make the characters more believable.

Even after NASA began accepting scientists and doctors, everything always seemed to be "nominal." Over and out.

Thagard represents a new breed of astronaut, perhaps, one for the long-duration missions of the 21st century.

While his predecessors rarely talked about their families unless asked, Thagard has repeatedly mentioned his wife, Kirby, and their three sons, and how much he misses them.

Here are more examples from Wednesday:

"I think I can honestly say I had no serious difficulties. I worry really more about longer flights."

And this:

"You're one American on a Russian spacecraft, no one else really speaks English and there were times when I went days without talking to our folks in the mission control center in Moscow, all of which adds up to a fair amount of isolation."

Uh-oh, complaints.

NASA's medical gurus appreciate Thagard's candor.

"It gives us a lot of insight into how we need to start thinking for a longer-term stay," said mission scientist Tom Sullivan. "I think most of the things he's said are things that we've been generally aware of, but we haven't had as much insight as I think we will now."

"I don't think we tell the astronauts what they should or shouldn't say," Sullivan added. "Generally speaking, the old fighter jocks were probably less open about their emotions."