Two new cosmonauts are on their way to the crippled Mir space station, which they will try to repair during six spacewalks. But when they get there, they’ll face a more immediate problem: Mir’s main oxygen generator is broken.
Since a flash fire in February and a June 25 collision with a robot supply ship, the main oxygen-generating system has broken down so often that Mir’s crew doesn’t even count on it, NASA and Russian space officials said. Instead the Russians and one astronaut on board use the backup system for oxygen, burning chemical candles. There is a 75-day supply.
Fixing the primary system won’t happen until well after cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Pavel Vinogradov dock with Mir on Thursday, NASA officials said. They launched toward Mir on a Soyuz rocket Tuesday. The current Mir crew, which includes American Michael Foale, doesn’t have time to make the repairs before the new group arrives.
“That is a certified safe mode for generating oxygen,” said NASA spokesman Brian Welch. “We don’t consider that a big deal. That is standard operations.”
But non-NASA experts say the American space agency is downplaying the seriousness of the situation.
“The only circumstances under which it would be no big deal is if the crew did not need to breathe oxygen,” said John Pike, space policy director for the Federation of American Scientists. “If the candles were the preferred means … they’d just have the candles on board.”
The candles are the equivalent of the small spare tire in the trunk of most cars, Pike said. They work but not for long.
“Standard operations would be for the oxygen generator to be working,” said Alcestis “Cooky” Oberg, a Houston-based author on the Russian space program. “This is a last line of defense back-up system.”
Oberg said it was this candle system that caused the fire on Mir.
The latest problem started last Thursday when a pipe clogged, forcing the last operational oxygen generator to be shut off, said Chris Faranetta, deputy director of Energia Limited, the American arm of the main Russian space company.
The generator already routinely is turned off because Mir’s crew is trying to save power. When the robot ship hit Mir, it punctured the Spektr lab. Cosmonauts had to seal off the lab, which forced them to cut the power lines carrying electricity to the station from Spektr’s solar panels.
The main oxygen generator probably will be fixed once cosmonauts get time to work on it. After that, Solovyev and Vinogradov will get to their first big job: restoring power to Mir. On Aug. 20, they will perform a risky interior spacewalk, open the sealed lab and install a new hatch that allows the electric cables to pass through to the rest of Mir.
If they succeed, the cosmonauts will walk outside Mir in early September to try to find the holes in Spektr. Then they’ll have to do more spacewalks to patch the holes.