The three men aboard Russia’s run-down Mir space station were left without any way to generate oxygen Monday after both their primary and backup systems failed, at least temporarily, NASA reported.
U.S. space officials said they wouldn’t know whether the two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut on board were able to fix either of the oxygen-producing devices until the next scheduled communication with the station this morning.
Nonetheless, one NASA official called it a potentially serious problem - one that could force an evacuation.
“It could be that tomorrow it could be no problem, or it could be a fairly significant problem,” said NASA spokesman Ed Campion. “If you can’t get either of the two systems back up, then you’re facing a serious situation.”
At the time of the cosmonauts’ last communication Monday with Russia’s Mission Control outside Moscow, they were struggling to fix the secondary solid fuel-burning system.
The primary Elektron generator, which had been turned off since last week to conserve power, had shut itself down Monday after it began overheating, Campion said.
“Before they went to bed, they may have gotten things fixed. We just don’t know,” Campion said.
In Russia, calls to Mission Control for comment around midnight Moscow time went unanswered after NASA disclosed the problem. CNN reported that a Russia Mission Control official said a cosmonaut radioed that the primary oxygen system had been fixed before the crew apparently went to sleep.
Even if both systems remain broken, Mir has enough oxygen to last several days, Campion said from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
What’s more, NASA astronaut Michael Foale and his two Russian crewmates could stretch their air supply by using oxygen tanks set aside for upcoming spacewalks. NASA officials said they did not know how much oxygen those tanks hold.
If neither oxygen-producing system can be restarted over the next several days, Foale and his two Russian crewmates would have to abandon ship in the attached Soyuz capsule.
There have been repeated problems with the new Elektron generator, carried up by space shuttle Atlantis in May. But this is the first time since February that a crew has had serious trouble with the backup system, in which solid-fuel canisters are ignited to produce oxygen.
One of these canisters burst into flames in February, filling the station with smoke and almost causing the crew to evacuate.
The cosmonauts were trying to ignite a canister, or candle, Monday when the system failed. They replaced the igniter mechanism but the canister still would not burn.
“This may be nothing more complicated than putting a new candle into the mechanism and they’re back in business,” said another NASA spokesman, Rob Navias.
Mir takes about 1 hours to circle the Earth, and Russia only has tracking stations in Ukraine and Russia. Therefore, Russian ground controllers can communicate with the Mir only for about 20 minutes each orbit, when the station passes over its territory.
There was a bit of good news Monday aboard Mir.
Commander Anatoly Solovyov reported that power was flowing through the makeshift hatch that he and Pavel Vinogradov installed during an internal spacewalk Friday to restore power.
Indeed, Russian flight controllers verified that an additional 40 amps of electricity were flowing into the station. But commands sent to move three of the four solar panels mounted on the outside of the ruptured lab module were unsuccessful.