Russian and American space officials are scrambling to figure out how to salvage the Mir space station after it was hit by an out-of-control robot ship loaded with garbage.
The accident early on Wednesday left the two Russians and American Michael Foale on Mir in virtual darkness, their power supply cut in half and an entire section of the station sealed off because of a small hole.
While work on the ground is about to get busier, the crew members will have to curtail their activity because their oxygen generators, carbon dioxide removers and cooling system have been shut down to conserve power.
Power is the key here.
When the unmanned Progress resupply ship rammed the so-called Spektr module, a 40-foot lab, it tore open and bent one of four newer solar power panels on the space station.
It also poked a hole about the size of a penny in the station’s walls, causing the air pressure to plummet to zero and forcing the crew to seal the room. That cut off all power from the other three panels because, to seal the room, the crew had to disconnect electrical cables leading from the module to the rest of the station.
The first priority for ground controllers in Moscow and Houston today is to get more power to Mir. That will involve turning Mir - a process that could take several days - because the impact moved the station out of the best position for its remaining five solar panels to face the sun and recharge their batteries.
“The situation is stable and safe for the crew at this particular time, but the next few days are going to be critical,” NASA shuttle-Mir director Frank Culbertson said.
Life drastically has changed on the 11-year-old station.
Spektr, which includes half of NASA’s experiments and nearly all of Foale’s personal effects and computers, won’t be for accessible for the near future because it has been exposed to the deadly vacuum of space. Opening it would suck the pressure out of the station.
Officials on the ground are still trying to figure out what to do after recharging Mir’s batteries. They may order cosmonauts to perform spacewalks to patch the hole and improvise new electrical wiring from the module’s three undamaged power panels. Another possibility is abandoning Mir by using a escape capsule. NASA officials say Mir is not about to be abandoned.
The accident, which caused the most serious non-fatal problem in space since Apollo 13 in 1971, triggered an angry response by U.S. congressional leaders, who have been increasingly critical of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since a fire last February filled Mir with heavy smoke.
“Our confidence took a big hit today,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Science Committee. “There have been 10 major incidents on Mir since Feb. 23. The equipment is old and wearing out. With Spektr going down, we have to ask whether it is safe.”
The key to survival, as it was when an oxygen tank exploded aboard Apollo 13, is buying time for engineers to come up with a repair method, said Gene Kranz, the legendary flight director who oversaw the Apollo 13 mission.
“They’ve got a first-class recovery problem on their hands,” Kranz said of Russian flight controllers.
NASA officials, who have dramatically downplayed past problems on the rickety Mir, were not doing so now.
“It’s as critical as we can get,” said Jerry Linenger, who lived for four harrowing months on Mir, weathering a February fire and the breakdown of several key pieces of life-support equipment.
“Fire aboard a spacecraft and decompression are the two most dangerous things that can happen on an orbiting vehicle, and we’ve had both of them,” said Linenger, who returned in May.
The emergency escape system involves using a Soyuz capsule that can be entered and sealed in less than a minute.
The Mir crew is in this situation because a test of a relatively new docking system went very bad.
The eight-ton resupply ship had docked with Mir and delivered its goods in April. It arrived using an automated docking system.
The robot ships normally are filled with waste from Mir and disconnected to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Before sending it off, Russia decided to test a backup docking system that is controlled manually by a cosmonaut on Mir.
While Cmdr. Vasily Tsibliev was steering the ship it went out of control, swung past its docking port, glided by the main core of Mir and hit the Spektr module, Culbertson said.
It could have been worse. If it had hit the Mir core it would have caused more critical damage, experts said.
If Spektr can’t be fixed and reopened, there is no reason to work on Mir because there is little science to be done, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“The (space) leadership does not want (Foale) to come home. The Russians need the money. Our leadership has made it political. They clearly want to fly this thing till it breaks.”