The Year in Science: Space 1997

One Thing After Another

By Fred Guterl|Thursday, January 01, 1998
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT
Americans have known their share of emergencies in space, from Apollo 13 to the balky door on the space shuttle, but this past year on the Mir space station was a different matter altogether. The Russian cosmonauts and their American guests were subjected to so many problems, including potentially life-threatening fires and air-pressure leaks, that the year blurred into an ongoing crisis marathon.

In 1993, when the United States and Russia decided to cooperate on the new International Space Station, sending American scientist-astronauts on a study-abroad program aboard the trusty old Mir, which began operating in 1986, seemed like a good idea. Beyond learning how to keep fit in zero-g, it was hoped that the astronauts would imbibe the culture of long-term missions and, who knows, perhaps even acquire some of the Russians’ legendary imperturbability in the face of the unexpected. Aboard Mir, U.S. astronauts were told to mind their research and keep their noses out of operations. And that’s where things stood as the year began.

The mishaps started in February, when one of two canisters used as back-up oxygen burst into flames, filling the station with smoke and fumes and spewing gobs of molten metal. Fire extinguishers proved ineffective, and the crew watched for 14 minutes until the flames died out on their own. Although Mir had experienced a similar fire in 1994, this one was far worse: the two-foot-long flames threatened to burn through the aluminum hull, and they blocked the escape route to one of the two Soyuz spaceships that were docked with the station at the time. Months later, officials are still at a loss to explain how the oxygen canister could have caught fire.

Then in March, Mir’s main oxygen generators broke down. In April the crew had to shut down the air-purification system when coolant began leaking into the atmosphere; for a while the cabin temperature reached nearly 90 degrees. By now mission control in Moscow was beginning to attract a great deal of media attention. Reporters were snapping up quotes from grumpy Russian space agency officials. Mir’s commander, Vasily Tsibliyev, was also getting some publicity. Around this time it became more widely known that he carried a plastic rabbit and liked to consult his astrologer.

Then, on June 25, came the main event. Tsibliyev was using a joystick to dock the unmanned Progress cargo vessel with Mir. This procedure would have been routine, except Tsibliyev was operating it without Mir’s radar, which ordinarily gives the vessel’s distance and its rate and angle of approach. Mission control worried about getting spare units out of the radar factory, located in a former Soviet republic, and just in case the current unit should fail, they thought the crew should learn how to dock Progress without it.

Having switched off the radar, Tsibliyev eyeballed the entire maneuver with the aid of a video camera mounted on Progress. He found himself staring back at Mir against a backdrop of moving cloud cover, which may have distracted him. What’s more, on that particular day the Progress vessel happened to be heavier than normal, and the pressure in the braking thrusters was lower than normal. Taking those things into account, Tsibliyev fired the braking thrusters a bit longer than usual—but something still went wrong, and the ship failed to stop. The crew heard a loud thump. Seconds later, they felt the terrifying tug of decompression in their ears.

The collision ruptured the hull of Spektr, one of Mir’s six modules, which happened to be both the lab and the sleeping quarters of Michael Foale, the American guest at the time. The immediate crisis was over in a few minutes, once the crew had sealed off the hatch to Spektr. But that meant cutting off its solar panels from the rest of the ship, putting Mir at half power.

The mishaps weren’t over. On July 16 cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin accidentally disconnected a power cable that shut off Mir’s computer, crippling its gyroscope and throwing the station into a slow spin, its solar panels pointing uselessly into the dark void of space. On August 5 the only working oxygen generator failed, forcing the crew to rely once again on backup canisters. Throughout this chaos, the Russians were deliberating over just how and when to repair the collision damage, which required a tricky internal spacewalk into the darkened, frozen Spektr, and who was going to do it. The normally unflappable Tsibliyev—whose initial response to the crisis was to cry, We are alive, thank God!—came through the ordeal emotionally exhausted. Having developed an irregular heartbeat, most likely from the extreme stress, he was deemed unfit to perform the repairs.

The new crew sent in August didn’t have an easy time either. The ship’s computer failed several more times. Even the successful repair mission on Spektr on August 22 was marred by one astronaut’s leaky glove. And on September 15 a U.S. military satellite came to within 500 to 1,000 yards of Mir, forcing the crew to take refuge once again in the Soyuz capsule, to be ready for a quick getaway in the event of a collision.

Once the situation stabilized, the finger-pointing started in earnest. Back on the ground, Tsibliyev took a lot of heat from the Russian press and from his superiors at Star City, the cosmonaut training center, for his role in the fiasco; most likely his days as a cosmonaut are over. He, in turn, blamed Mir’s woes on the crumbling Russian infrastructure. Not only are replacement parts hard to get, he said, but balky communications satellites forced the cosmonauts to perform tricky operations only when the station happened to be over Russia, even if it meant disrupting their night’s rest.

Like it or not, by autumn nasa had become less of a customer and more of a partner in Mir. Astronauts were assuming a bigger operational role—Foale, for instance, had briefly been considered as Tsibliyev’s replacement for reconnecting the cables to Spektr, something that would have been unthinkable a few months before. Moscow was now consulting nasa on major decisions. Of course, not everybody was thrilled with the new arrangement. Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin and head of the House Science Committee, concluded that Mir was overdue for the scrap heap and pounded NASA officials for endangering the safety of U.S. astronauts. NASA was unrepentant. A lot’s been made of Mir’s design life being five years, says James Van Laak, nasa’s deputy director for the Shuttle-Mir program. But what’s really true is that the Mir was certified for five years—just like the space shuttles were originally certified for only 10 flights. Most of them have flown more than 20 flights. If I ask an engineer to design and certify a piece of hardware to operate 25 years in space, he’d say, ‘I don’t know how to do that. I’ll design it as best I can to operate 25 years, but I’m only going to certify it for 5, and after 5 we’ll have to take another look at it.’ That’s exactly the way the Russians have approached the design of the Mir. Only a week after Sensenbrenner’s hearing, in late September, the agency sent up its sixth crewmember, David Wolf; it plans to replace him with Andy Thomas in late January, the last American astronaut scheduled to visit Mir.

NASA maintains that the year on Mir, though harrowing, has been a valuable object lesson. Whereas astronauts can always land the shuttle as soon as a crisis occurs, that’s not generally an option on a space station. On a space station you’re much more like a ship at sea, says Van Laak. You have to deal with a crisis to its conclusion. The option of getting in a lifeboat and coming home is certainly there, but because of the value of the ship, you save that for the last resort. These elements permeate the very design and operation of the space station and the training the crew receives.

Could this year of mishaps be a foretaste of life on the International Space Station, the first elements of which are supposed to be launched and assembled in space next June? The kinds of things that happened on Mir can happen on a new space station as well as on an old space station, says Marcia Smith, a space expert at the Library of Congress. It’s part of the risk of human spaceflight. nasa, in fact, expects to see far more hardware failures on the iss than on Mir simply because it will be so much more complex. I guarantee that some of these problems will show up in some form in the International Space Station, says Van Laak. When the accidents happen, astronauts will just have to cope. And so will we.
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