Just when it seemed impossible for conditions to get any worse on Mir, the Russian space station’s main computer failed Monday, leaving the crippled outpost tumbling for three hours with many of its systems shut down to save power.
The problem will delay a crucial internal spacewalk to restore most of the power lost during a June 25 crash with a robot supply ship. The spacewalk into the dead Spektr module was scheduled for Wednesday but will happen no earlier than Friday, NASA spokesman Rob Navias said.
It will take at least a day or two to restore power to the minimal level that Mir was operating on before the computer failed, NASA officials said. The station was stabilized later in the day and is “rock steady orientated to the sun,” Navias said.
Solar panels have to be aimed at the sun to bring maximum power into the station. The three-man crew is safe, NASA and Russian officials said. The computer failure caused different reactions in space circles. Russian mission controllers called the situation chaotic. U.S. critics of the shuttle-Mir program called for America to abandon the 11-year-old station. NASA called the problem no big deal.
The problem occurred just as a Progress supply ship the same type that crashed into Mir was trying to dock with the station. Mir Commander Anatoly Solovyev took manual control and docked smoothly.
During the docking attempt, the Russians were trying to load software into Mir’s main computer to help point the station toward the cargo ship. However, there was something wrong with the software and the computer rejected it and shut itself down, said Chris Faranetta deputy director of Energia Limited, the American arm of the main Russian space company.
“This is a situation that the cosmonauts are very familiar with,” said Faranetta, who added that problems with the computer are about as old as Mir itself. He said the computer should be fixed today.
The station drifted for three hours until thrusters from the station’s Soyuz capsule were used to keep Mir stable. A similar problem occurred July 17 when the crew inadvertently pulled a cable that shut down the computer.
The Soyuz has to spend precious fuel keeping Mir in the proper position until its main control system adjusts itself, a process that takes a couple days, said Jim Oberg, a Houston engineer and expert on the Russian space program.
The computer outage comes on the heels of a fire, several breakdowns in the oxygen generating and carbon dioxide removal systems, a leak in the air conditioner and a dwindling supply of usable drinking water.
These problems have renewed calls to get American Michael Foale off Mir and give up on the program.
“What’s next? Locusts?,” asked Dwayne Day, an analyst at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “They’re facing problems of Biblical proportions right now.”
Graphic: A string of problems aboard Mir