Illness Delays Space Station Repairs; American May Try Risky Spacewalk
The crippled Mir space station will have to limp along without relief for at least eight more days while the commander recovers from heart palpitations and mission controllers patch together a new repair plan, Russian officials said Tuesday.
The latest scenario for fixing Mir might call on U.S. astronaut Michael Foale to pinch-hit in a spacewalk that had been scheduled to involve Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev, who doctors say is suffering from an irregular heartbeat and jangled nerves.
One of the three men aboard the power-starved space station will have to execute a perilous trek into the dark, cramped and airless interior of the damaged Spektr research module to reconnect severed battery cables if Mir is to be restored to working order.
Since a June 25 collision with an unmanned cargo craft punctured and depressurized Spektr, the station has lost 40 percent of its power-generating capacity and most of the scientific research that was being conducted there by NASA.
For three weeks the crew has been practicing and planning for the delicate repair mission. But stress and fatigue appear to be complicating the project and undermining its chances for success.
Tsibliyev was at the controls during the docking practice that went awry and has been heard by reporters inside Mission Control Center expressing doubts that he or his colleagues can carry out the spacewalk under current conditions.
Space agency medical advisers have suggested that Tsibliyev’s sudden bout of heart irregularities is nothing serious and likely caused by emotions heightened by the accident, the worst in Mir’s troubled 11-year history.
“It’s natural that with tensions and emotions flying high and the feeling of responsibility that all of this has increased the emotional pressure” on Tsibliyev, said Igor Goncharov, a deputy mission controller in charge of medical issues.
After examining the commander’s electrocardiogram, mission specialists “do not think that he should put on a spacesuit any time soon,” Goncharov said.
Another deputy flight controller, Vladimir Solovev, said Foale might be asked to help with the spacewalk and repair mission if his controllers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration approve.
NASA said Tuesday that it has taken the Russian request “under careful review.” The U.S. space agency noted that Foale is “an experienced shuttle astronaut with spacewalking experience” who trained to back up astronaut Jerry Linenger when he made a spacewalk on Mir in April.
Despite Mir’s litany of accidents and malfunctions, both NASA and the Russian Space Agency are keen to keep the space jalopy in orbit. As the world’s only existing space station, Mir is a vital training center for those working on the Alpha International Space Station to be launched in 1999. And perhaps most important, abandoning Mir could cause it to fall from orbit and imperil Earth with a 120-ton missile of space junk.
The original repair plan called for Tsibliyev to enter Spektr in a pressurized space suit while flight engineer Alexander Lazutkin provided backup in an adjacent component that will also have to be depressurized for the operation. Foale was to have manned the Soyuz escape module during the repairs, in case they go wrong and the three men have to abandon ship and return to Earth.
The repair job is expected to last about four hours. It involves replacing the hatch cover separating Spektr from the main body of the space station with one fitted with a “hermoplate.” The specially designed hatch door will allow the 19 severed battery cables to be attached to the inside of the cover and pass power through to the space station’s main electrical grid.
Unless energy from the solar panels on Spektr can be recovered, the space station will become little more than an orbiting camper, as there will be insufficient power to resume scientific experimentation.