Russia’s run-down Mir space station got a new oxygen generator Saturday and a fresh American astronaut ready to help with repairs.
Within 12 hours of Atlantis’ arrival, NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger was back on the shuttle, his ride home after four months on Mir. And Michael Foale and his two new Mir-mates were assured of sufficient air.
“I stand relieved of duties on the Mir,” Linenger said. “It’s good to be back on U.S. soil.”
The long-distance delivery by Atlantis was perfectly timed and executed. After a flurry of glad-to-see-you’s, the 10 astronauts and cosmonauts on the linked ships quickly moved the new generator into Mir to replace a broken unit, accomplishing the job hours earlier than planned.
Mir’s crew had been relying on only one functioning generator instead of the usual two, and that unit was hardly reliable - a clogged filter caused it to temporarily shut down two months ago. An attached pump, in fact, malfunctioned shortly after Friday night’s docking, and the generator had to be put on standby until the latest problem could be resolved.
Shortly after the new generator was hauled into Mir as a backup for the one on standby, Linenger and Foale officially swapped places.
Linenger, a 42-year-old doctor, giggled as he radioed down a list of the transferred items that will return to Earth with him next Saturday.
“It’s a pleasure to be talking so simply and directly without a few days’ delay like we have operating on Mir,” he told Mission Control.
Poor communications were the least of his problems on Mir, six years beyond its five-year designed lifetime.
Linenger and his Mir colleagues almost had to evacuate during a fire in February and spent days if not weeks breathing antifreeze fumes. Temperatures soared as high as 94 degrees Fahrenheit because of the cooling-system leaks, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air shot up, too.
The situation has since improved, so much so that National Aeronautics and Space Administration managers said they have no qualms about leaving Foale there for 4-1/2 months. Having a new oxygen generator on board also helps; it will be tested over the next day or two.
Mir “is in the latter stages of its life, but it’s not about to fall out of the sky,” said NASA’s shuttle-Mir program director Frank Culbertson. “If we thought it was unsafe, we would never have transferred Michael Foale over to it, and I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to continue the program as planned with the Russians.”
Foale is the fifth of seven NASA astronauts scheduled to live on Mir. He will remain on board until Atlantis returns for him in late September.
“I have a big smile on my face,” the 40-year-old British-born astrophysicist said after floating into Mir and embracing his new crewmates.