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The Right Spin, with Astronaut Michael Foale (2005)

Narrated by Robert Osserman

In 1997 Michael Foale was the American astronaut on board the Russian space station Mir at the time of a failed docking attempt with an unmanned Progress supply ship. The supply ship collided with Mir, punching a hole in one of the modules of Mir, damaging a number of the solar panels, and inducing a tumbling motion that prevented the remaining solar panels from pointing toward the sun. The result was that the air pressure began to decline precipitously, and after a period of time all electric power was lost. By sealing off the punctured module, the crew was able to restore the required air pressure, but the tumbling motion seemed a more intractable problem. Michael Foale proposed using the thrusters on an attached Soyuz vehicle that served as an emergency evacuation “life boat” and had an independent power supply. The problem was how to use those thrusters to transform the tumbling motion into a regular spin about an axis that would keep the undamaged solar panel facing in the direction of the sun, and thus restore electricity to the station.

In this DVD, Michael Foale provides his personal account of the experience, and explains the mathematical methods involved in rescuing Mir from what would almost certainly have been its demise had they been forced to evacuate and leave it tumbling without power until it burned up re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Production of the DVD is made possible by support from the Clay Mathematics Institute, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, and the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics.

About Michael Foale: Michael Foale studied at the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College. He received a bachelor of arts in Physics, Natural Science Tripos, with 1st class honors, and completed his doctorate in Laboratory Astrophysics in 1982. He was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1987. He was on the first space shuttle flight to rendezvous with Mir, and returned in 1997 for a 4½-month stay aboard Mir, during which time he dealt with the emergency resulting from the collision with the Progress supply ship. In 1999 he engaged in a space walk as part of the mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Michael Foale currently holds the U.S. record for time spent in space, having spent over a year of his life in outer space.

Further Reading

Bryan Burrough, Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir; An Epic Adventure of Survival in Outer Space, New York, HarperCollins 1998.


  • A beautifully written, suspenseful, and thoroughly researched book on the program to send U.S. astronauts for extended stays aboard the Russian space station Mir. Included are detailed descriptions of the near-fatal incidents related by Michael Foale on The Right Spin, and by his predecessor, Jerry Linenger.

Jerry M. Linenger, Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months aboard the Space Station Mir, New York, McGraw-Hill 2000.


  • A first-hand account by the astronaut who preceded Michael Foale on board Mir, and who survived a disastrous fire and a near collision.

Michael Foale, “Dynamic Rotation of Space Station Mir”, The Mathematica Journal 7, Issue 3, Oct. 6, 1999, Special Section.


  • Michael Foale’s analysis of the rotational motion of Mir using the classical Euler equations of a rotating body, written and solved numerically using the program Mathematica.

V. I. Arnold, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics, translated by K. Vogtman and A. Weinstein, New York, Springer-Verlag 1978.


  • A modern classic on classical mechanics by one of twentieth century’s major contributors to the subject. Included are discussions of various terms used by Michael Foale, including Euler’s equations, moments and axes of inertia, and Coriolis forces.

Film Credits

The Clay Mathematics Institute and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute present:

THE RIGHT SPIN

With Astronaut 
MICHAEL FOALE

Narrated by
ROBERT OSSERMAN

Written and produced by
ROBERT OSSERMAN

Directed by
GEORGE PAUL CSICSERY

Cinematography
AL KLIMAS
SKIP SWEENEY

Sound Recordists
STEVE MALITO
SIGGI MATTHIASON

Editor
SKIP SWEENEY

Original music composed and performed by
JON HERBST

Michael Foale’s appearance courtesy of
NASA Johnson Space Center

Archival photographs and footage courtesy of
NASA

Animation of MIR rotation produced by
DAVE BAYER
from Michael Foale’s Mathematica program

Credits design
BOB JOHNS

DVD authoring
MAUREEN FUTTNER
VIDEO ARTS

DVD Replication
MONACO FILM & VIDEO

Production Assistant
CAROLINE BEGHELLI

Consultants
DAVE BAYER
DAVID HOFFMAN
ROBERT LITTLEJOHN
STAN WAGON

And former astronauts
THOMAS D. AKERS
ANTHONY W. ENGLAND

Funded by

THE CLAY MATHEMATICS INSTITUTE

and

MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES RESEARCH INSTITUTE

Additional financial support from the
JOINT POLICY BOARD
FOR MATHEMATICS

a collaborative effort of the

AMERICAN MATHEMATICAL SOCIETY

AMERICAN STATISTICAL ASSOCIATION

MATHEMATICAL ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA

SOCIETY FOR INDUSTRIAL AND APPLIED MATHEMATICS

Special thanks to

JAMES A. CARLSON
President, Clay Mathematics Institute

DAVID EISENBUD
Director, MSRI

And to the following at the NASA Johnson Space Center:

BENNY CHENEY

GAYLE FRERE

MIKE GENTRY

LINDA KENNEDY

LUCY LYTWYNSKY

NICHOLAS O’DOSEY

LOUIS PARKER

DOUG PETERSON

STEVE M. SIDES

TRISHA BROOKE SIMS

Thanks to

ALEXANDRE CHORIN

ANNETTE EMERSON

L. CRAIG EVANS

ANNE O’TOOLE
MONACO LABS

ORANGE GARAGE

JILL WOO
EYEMAGIC PRODUCTIONS, INC.

SIRIUS VIDEO

VIDEO FREE AMERICA

ZALA FILMS

Produced for Mathematics Awareness Month
www.mathaware.org

The Right Spin ©2005 Mathematical Sciences Research Institute
All Rights Reserved

MATHEMATICS AWARENESS MONTH

www.mathaware.org

THE CLAY MATHEMATICS INSTITUTE
www.claymath.org

MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES RESEARCH INSTITUTE 
www.msri.org

JOINT POLICY BOARD FOR MATHEMATICS
www.mathaware.org/about.jpbm.html

AMERICAN MATHEMATICAL SOCIETY
www.ams.org

AMERICAN STATISTICAL ASSOCIATION
www.amstat.org

MATHEMATICAL ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA
www.maa.org

SOCIETY FOR INDUSTRIAL AND APPLIED MATHEMATICS
www.siam.org

NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA)
www.nasa.gov

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER
www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/home