April 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Astronaut Discusses Life Aboard Russian Rattletrap

Ralph Vartabedian Los Angeles Times
 

American astronaut Jerry Linenger showed a stiff upper lip Friday as he spoke to reporters about the deplorable conditions aboard the aged and deteriorating Russian space station Mir.

Linenger, 42, and his two Russian colleagues are suffering from nasal congestion caused by leaking chemical fumes, stifling temperatures and high humidity from Mir’s malfunctioning ventilation system.

“It’s a story here of a space station that we’ve kept going, or the Russians have kept going, for 11 years,” Linenger told a news conference over the Mir’s radio. “They’ve done a lot of repairs up here and so I’m hoping for the best - that we’re able to fix things.”

Linenger insisted that he “feels fine” and is confident about his safety, adding that his scientific research is going exceptionally well.

But the Mir has suffered a rash of problems since Linenger came aboard, including a fire in February that nearly forced the crew to abandon the spacecraft and return to Earth aboard the attached Soyuz capsule.

The problems aboard Mir have led officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to reconsider whether to drop off another astronaut as planned next month when a space shuttle picks up Linenger.

Congressional leaders are putting pressure on the space agency to discontinue the Shuttle-Mir missions, saying that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has no business endangering American astronauts.

“Mir is breaking about as fast as they can fix it,” said John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “There is so much crud in the plumbing system that it will limit the life of any new equipment they bring up to fix it.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House appropriations panel that controls NASA funding, said in an interview this week that he is growing increasingly concerned for the safety of American astronauts and has held discussions with senior NASA officials on the issue.

NASA spokesman Rob Navias said Friday the decision on whether to drop off astronaut Mike Foale in mid-May will be made by the agency’s senior management, including Administrator Daniel Goldin.

A Russian space official criticized NASA Thursday for exaggerating Mir’s problems, including the fire. But conditions aboard the Mir are as bad as U.S. astronauts have experienced in many years.

Linenger said that the Mir’s cooling system is leaking ethylene glycol, the principle ingredient in automotive antifreeze, causing respiratory congestion. In addition, carbon dioxide levels in the Mir are ranging between 5 percent and 8 percent.

While not life-threatening, both problems are serious. Ethylene glycol is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a hazardous air pollutant, one of only 188 substances so-designated.

According to scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Public Health Service in Atlanta, inhaled ethylene glycol can cause throat and upper respiratory irritation, headaches and low backaches. When ingested, it can cause kidney damage.

As for carbon dioxide, concentrations of 3 percent can cause headaches, while concentrations of 10 percent or more can result in visual disturbances, tremors and even loss of consciousness.

The cooling problems have led to temperatures ranging from the low 80s to the low 90s with high humidity.

The Mir crew has been busy, Linenger said, unloading supplies and tools for the repairs from a recently arrived Russian supply ship. The Mir crew used a hacksaw Thursday to cut out one leaking heat exchanger from the cooling system, but found afterward that the system was also leaking in other areas.

“Is this what I expected? Not really, although we are out here on the frontier and I expected the unexpected,” Linenger said. “And we are getting some of that.”

Linenger dismissed questions asked by reporters about his safety concerns, saying, “I’m willing to stay up here and keep working until someone says it’s time to go home.”


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