World

Mission improbable

A new crisis besets Russia's error-plagued Mir space station

MARK NICHOLS July 28 1997
World

Mission improbable

A new crisis besets Russia's error-plagued Mir space station

MARK NICHOLS July 28 1997

Mission improbable

A new crisis besets Russia's error-plagued Mir space station

MARK NICHOLS

World

After more than 11 years in earth orbit, the accident-prone Russian space station, Mir, is looking increasingly old and decrepit. And after almost half a year aboard, Mir’s current commander is displaying signs of wear and tear himself. Vasily Tsibliyev, 43, was at the controls in June when a docking operation went awry and an unmanned Russian supply ship smashed into Mir’s Spektr module, cutting off half the station’s solar-generated electricity. As Tsibliyev and the two other crew members practised making repairs to Spektr last week, the Russian commander complained of stress, difficulty sleeping and an irregular heartbeat. Shortly after that, a crew member accidentally disconnected a computer cable, sending Mir tumbling through space with its lights and airconditioning shut down for 24 hours. Russian officials would not say who pulled the plug. But the latest foul-up fed growing doubts about Mir’s continued usefulness, and was almost certain to force postponement of repairs to Spektr until a Russian relief crew reaches Mir next month.

With Tsibliyev taking heart medication and sedatives, plans for the Spektr repair operation had to be hastily altered. At one point, U.S. space officials agreed to let British-born American astronaut Michael Foale take Tsibliyev’s place and practise repair procedures with the other Russian crew member, Alexander Lazutkin. But what NASA—and Mir’s own weary and accident-battered crew—really wanted was for the potentially dangerous operation to be left for the fresh crew, scheduled to arrive on Aug. 7. “These men have worked hard for a long time in a very stressful environment,” said Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who spent three days aboard Mir during a 1995 space shuttle

mission. “They’ve performed heroically.”

Mir’s recent string of near-disasters began in February, when the crew had to don gas masks and take 14 minutes to extinguish a fire that broke out during an air-filter change. More accidents followed, including the failure of an oxygen-supply generator in March. Then, on June 25, the Progress supply ship missed its target during docking and punched a hole in Spektr, forcing Mir’s crew to disconnect cables linking some of the module’s solar panels to the rest of the station before sealing off the damaged unit. Last week, when someone inadvertently unplugged the computer that keeps Mir stable with its solar panels pointed towards the sun, the lights went out and the spacecraft began tumbling. Using rocket thrusters aboard Mir’s Soyuz escape vehicle, the crew managed to stabilize the spaceship, and Lazutkin toiled through the night to reconnect Mir’s life-support systems. “All microclimate systems are working completely normally,” declared Russian mission director Vladimir Solovyov as the latest crisis ended. “Conditions are completely comfortable.” With the repairs to Spektr still to be done, NASA officials tentatively agreed to let Foale step in to replace Tsibliyev. But they were clearly concerned about the hazards he and Lazutkin would face. Wearing bulky space suits, the men planned to depressurize the module linking Mir’s core assembly to Spektr and make an “internal space walk” within the vacuum-like conditions inside the connecting module and Spektr. Lazutkin would then try to reconnect about 10 cables carrying power from Spektr’s solar panels, while Foale made sure that the Russian avoided sharp objects that could penetrate his space suit. “All space walks carry risks,” said Hadfield, who works with NASA in Houston. “And in this instance, there is the added risk that a spacesuit could get snagged on something.”

The repair job will now likely be left to a fresh crew. But the Russians have pressing reasons for wanting Mir fully operational again. Serving as a training ground for the 15-nation International Space Station (construction is scheduled to get under way next year), the aging platform is bringing in more than $600 million in U.S. funding—foreign cash that has become the principal support for the post-Soviet space program. But last week, U.S. officials reserved their decision on sending an astronaut to Mir in September, awaiting evidence that the Russians can get the venerable outpost back in top shape.