In its seemingly endless spate of slip-ups and breakdowns, the crippled Mir space station ran out of power and began tumbling out of control for several hours Thursday when one of the exhausted crewmen accidentally pulled the plug on the navigation system.
The mishap, which occurred during preparations for a perilous repair mission, plunged Mir into darkness and cut power to oxygen generators, climate control and communications. Mission Control center officials blamed “human error.”
Only hours later, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials announced they have given conditional approval for U.S. astronaut Michael Foale to participate, later this month, in the mission to repair damage caused by a June 25 accident.
The chaotic breakdowns on Mir are forcing Russia for the first time to accept American help on the mission and NASA to live by foreign engineer-ing standards - major compromises for both nations. At the same time, Congress is questioning the whole cooperative relationship.
And, as Mir staggers through a fourth week of crisis conditions, concerns are mounting that stress and fatigue are taking their toll on the trio compelled to soldier on with the troubled mission to show U.S.-Russian solidarity in space.
The error Thursday caused a computer to shut down navigation automatically, sending the craft into a free drift that deprived its solar panels of sunlight needed to produce electricity.
Russian Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovev described the latest power loss as “a very bad situation and serious trouble.” But by late Thursday, the spacecraft had been reoriented and the crew was attempting to recharge its batteries. Power was expected to be restored by mid-day today.
NASA announced in Houston it had given the go-ahead for Foale to begin preparing for the internal spacewalk to repair Mir’s electrical system. But final approval will be withheld until after a joint readiness review, said Frank Culbertson, NASA’s head of the Mir missions.
The decision to assign Foale to help with the risky repairs inside Mir marked the most trying test to date of American and Russian cooperation in space.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Science Committee, said Thursday that NASA already has gone too far in attempting to hold together its alliance with Russia and the space agency is now putting Foale’s life at risk.
“Sure, we have to take the hard times with the good times, but there comes a point where it is imprudent to continue having an American in space on that piece of equipment,” Sensenbrenner said. “Mir is wearing out.”
But outside experts applauded NASA’s decision, saying it is exactly what the cooperative relationship between America and Russians was supposed to be about.
“If we had said it was too risky for our boy, it would have sent a very strong message,” said John Logsdon, a space expert at George Washington University. “What was Foale going to say? ‘No, I am not going to help’ and then go sit in a corner?”
John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American scientists and frequent NASA critic, said he was bothered by the earlier plan that had Foale safely seated in the Soyuz capsule “while the two Russian men went into harm’s way.”
The new plan marks the first time that Russia will concede some real responsibility to an American and the deepest dependence yet by NASA on Russia’s way of doing business in space, he added.
Culbertson defended America’s continued participation on Mir, saying it is providing valuable lessons for the planned International Space Station. Foale’s involvement in the repairs, Culbertson said, will improve conditions for the entire crew.
None of the officials who briefed reporters in either the United States or Russia would specify which of the three men on board - Foale, Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev or flight engineer Alexander Lazutkin - was responsible for the disastrous disconnection, or even which two were training for the repair job when it happened.
Graphic: Mir’s new crisis