The Russian-American crew on the space station Mir is struggling to plug a leak of a toxic cooling fluid and may have to abandon ship, a senior Russian space official said Tuesday in the first public acknowledgment by Moscow that its 11-year-old space station may have become unsafe.
Viktor Blagov, deputy head of Russian mission control, said the astronauts on board Mir had repaired two leaks in the cooling system but had yet to find a third through which antifreeze was escaping into the space station’s air supply.
“It’s a difficult task, and if it cannot be solved Mir might be abandoned by the cosmonauts,” Blagov said at a press conference at mission control headquarters, north of Moscow. Concentrations of ethylene-glycol in Mir’s air supply, Blagov said, were “on the limit of what is acceptable.”
Even if the crew is not forced to abandon, the United States faces a difficult decision, analysts said Tuesday: whether to go ahead with plans to send the next U.S. astronaut scheduled to begin a four-month stint on Mir next month.
Blagov’s remarks represented a reversal for Russian space officials, who had gone to great lengths to defend the space station’s reliability.
In an apparent reversal of roles, NASA downplayed the problem Tuesday. Spokesman Kyle Herring said, “Everything I’ve heard today is that everything’s going fine. We have not heard of any problems or issues.”
But independent American observers said they have seen the problems coming. Aerospace policy analyst John Pike of the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists said more breakdowns are inevitable: “It’s not whether they’re going to abandon ship, it’s when. It’s not a permanent facility.”
Mir was designed to operate for only five years, so its unexpectedly long life span is one of the few unqualified successes of Russia’s space program, chronically underfunded since the Soviet breakup in 1991. But if a recent spate of equipment breakdowns in vital life-support systems is any indication, Mir’s age is starting to show.
A flash fire on Feb. 23 was followed two weeks later by a failure of the main oxygen-generating system. Then, Mir’s motion-control system ran into trouble, and the station experienced a partial power outage.
This month, the primary system to remove carbon dioxide from the air in the station had to be shut down, and the astronauts on board were forced to rely on a backup system of lithium hydroxide canisters.
Pike said that Mir is “exactly like an old car. The older and more beat up a car gets, the more it turns into a handyman’s delight. But the point comes when you just can’t fix it anymore.”
Blagov said the primary carbon-dioxide removal system was working again and would be able to function for 30 more days - long enough to hold out for the expected arrival in mid-May of the space shuttle Atlantis and spare parts it will be carrying.
U.S. astronaut Jerry Linenger, who has been aboard Mir since January, is scheduled to return to Earth on the Atlantis. Linenger said in a press conference from orbit two weeks ago that the crew is suffering constant congestion and sore throats from the ethylene-glycol fumes.
His Russian comrades will have to endure the hardships aboard the rickety space station far longer. Lack of funding has postponed for six weeks the planned June 24 launch of the Soyuz rocket that was supposed to pick up them up.