Russian space officials have just about given up hope that the stressed-out, accident-prone Mir crew can fix the ship’s damaged power cables, and they appear ready to postpone the vital task until a fresh crew arrives in early August. A final decision won’t be made until Monday.
The discussions at Russian Mission Control about revising the timetable came a day after the latest calamity on the star-crossed ship, when one of the weary crew members crashed an on-board computer and sent Mir tumbling in space.
After pulling an all-nighter, the crew was able Friday to stabilize the space station, aim its solar panels at the sun, and restore power.
When the worst was over, Mission Control gave the crew permission to take it easy. “We have decided to allow them to rest,” mission director Vladimir Solovyov said.
But even though the Mir crew now has everything under control, officials are increasingly convinced that the two Russians and one American are too exhausted to undertake the risky repair that had been planned for Thursday. The initial timetable for fixing the damaged Spektr module was revised this week after the lead repairman, Captain Vasily Tsibliyev, came down with a stress-induced heart problem.
Deputy mission director Sergei Krikalyov told reporters it looks “very likely” that the next crew will handle the repairs. That team, which has been practicing in a water tank outside Moscow, is scheduled to dock with Mir on Aug. 7.
The main problem in having the new crew do the work is that there is a scheduled overlap between the arrival of the new crew and the departure of the old one. That means Mir will have to host up to six people - twice its usual capacity - while functioning at half power.
The plan now calls for the two crews to overlap for three weeks, instead of the usual one week. That’s because the two departing Russians, Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin, were going to wait for an arriving French scientist to complete his experiments before returning with him to Earth.
To most experts, it would be ridiculous to send up a scientist to do experiments when there is just enough power to keep the Mir on course. “It’s not time to entertain tourists,” an unnamed controller told Russian television Friday.
If Mission Control cancels the French expedition, it would reduce the length of the overlap. Visiting American astronaut Michael Foale is expected to remain on Mir with the new crew until September, when another American, Wendy Lawrence, is to replace him.
But this week’s events could cause the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to reconsider sending more Americans up to the Mir.