Two cosmonauts on a mission to fix the Mir space station ran into trouble Thursday just as they reached the ship, when the automatic guidance system failed and they had to dock using manual controls.
In a striking parallel to Mir’s disastrous collision with a cargo ship last June, the capsule carrying the two Russians did not align itself properly for docking and was on course to hit the station.
When the capsule was just 10 yards away, Cmdr. Anatoly Solovev recognized that his craft was off target and overrode its controls.
A veteran of four previous flights to Mir, Solovev backed up the capsule, maneuvered into position and successfully docked on his first manual attempt. Ninety minutes later, the cosmonauts opened the hatch leading to Mir and greeted their three colleagues already aboard - two Russians and an American.
Russian space officials, who are eager for the new arrivals to repair damage from the June collision and revive Mir’s scientific laboratories, dismissed the failure in the same calm manner they have minimized other recent setbacks.
“It was a technical malfunction,” said flight director Vladimir Solovev, (who is not related to the commander). “The situation was not a critical one, but we will look into it.”
After a 49-hour flight through space, Anatoly Solovev and first-time cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov began making their home on a space station that has a serious power shortage, a broken oxygen generator, a defective docking system and at least two punctures in its shell.
Despite Mir’s problems, Russian Space Agency director Yuri N. Koptev hopes to keep the craft operating for at least three more years while the United States, Russia and other nations build the new International Space Station.
The business at hand is serious. The main chore of the new crew is to reconnect power cables from solar panels on Mir’s damaged Spektr research module to storage cells in the main compartment, thereby restoring full electrical power to the 11-year-old station.
Without that repair, the useful life of Mir for scientific study could effectively end, Russian and foreign scientists have said, since not enough power would be available to run the experiments that make the station attractive to paying customers in the United States, France and other countries. Income from the use of Mir as a research base by foreign astronauts has become a critical element in Russia’s cash-short space program.
Mir has been operating on about half its normal electrical capacity since the Spektr module was rammed and punctured by an unmanned cargo vehicle during a practice docking maneuver on June 25. The RussianAmerican crew then disconnected the Spektr power cables and sealed off the research module, leaving it a cold, airless and useless appendage of the space station. Video footage of Thursday’s docking clearly showed that Spektr’s solar panel had been crumpled in the collision.
At the Flight Control Center just north of Moscow, hundreds of space officials, engineers and journalists gathered to watch the docking on a giant screen.
As the capsule approached the station, it was possible to see the section of Mir that was punctured by a cargo ship in the June collision - causing air to leak from the station as the cosmonauts rushed to seal off the damaged module.
On Thursday the arriving craft, instead of heading directly for Mir’s port, appeared to be drifting downward toward the same section damaged by the cargo ship. Solovev halted his capsule about 10 yards from Mir, informed the Flight Control Center that it was misaligned and received permission to override its guidance system.
This was the third attempted docking with Mir to go awry in the past six months.
When cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin arrived in February, their capsule also was off target and they had to override the guidance system to dock. In June, Tsibliyev was in charge of the attempt to dock the supply craft when it struck the station.
Sergei Gromov, a spokesman for RSC Energiya, the company that designed Mir, said the automatic guidance system may have malfunctioned in all three cases because it was intended for use when Mir was a much smaller station.
Over the years, six modules have been added to the station, and its different configuration, Gromov said, may be throwing off the guidance system’s radio signals. “We’ll have to clarify why this happened,” he said.
Earlier in the day, it became clear that it will not be possible for the crew to fix Mir’s malfunctioning oxygen generator until the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis can deliver a spare part at the end of September.
Tsibliyev, Lazutkin and U.S. astronaut Michael Foale tried to repair the oxygen system before the arrival of the relief crew and discovered the problem is a worn-out pipe that connects the generator with the air intake system.
But experts on the ground had not anticipated the need to replace the pipe, and so the necessary part was not put aboard the craft that arrived Thursday.
For now, the crew will have to rely on back-up oxygen canisters known as “candles,” a frequent occurrence aboard the station.
The first major repair effort will take place Aug. 20, when either Solovev or Vinogradov enters the airless Spketr module and attempts to reconnect severed power cables.
Contrary to earlier reports, a spokesman for the Flight Control Center said it has not yet been decided which one will undertake the repair while the other assists.