An unwavering NASA began the countdown Monday for putting another American on Mir despite more problems on the ramshackle Russian outpost, including a faltering computer that could prevent a docking in space.
Well aware of the fuss, astronaut David Wolf said upon arriving at Kennedy Space Center that he had no second thoughts about leaving Earth and moving into Mir.
“I think I got the oven turned off, the refrigerator closed and all that, irons unplugged,” he joked. “Feel good about the flight.”
The shuttle launch team also tried to focus on the job at hand - preparing Atlantis and its last-minute load for a Thursday night liftoff.
“It won’t change until the program has asked us to delay the launch,” said shuttle test director John Guidi.
NASA senior managers awaited one last safety report, from Gemini and Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford, before clearing Atlantis for flight and Wolf for a four-month stay aboard Mir.
NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross has questioned Mir’s safety following a raging fire, crippling collision, computer crashes and noxious leaks over the past seven months. Even a former Johnson Space Center safety director, Charles Harlan, has said NASA senior managers “should have the guts” to admit enough is enough if the risks continue to mount.
“NASA management has accepted a different standard for human safety for the Phase 1 shuttle-Mir program than it has been willing to accept for either the shuttle or the international space station,” Harlan wrote in a June 29 letter to NASA’s top safety official, four days after a cargo ship plowed into Mir.
Leaders of the House Science Committee have urged NASA to call off Wolf’s Mir mission. He is supposed to replace Michael Foale, who has been up there since May. Committee leaders have said the shuttle should take up supplies, but no more astronauts to live on Mir.
Monday’s rash of trouble merely bolsters their argument.
Mir’s patched and repatched main computer went down yet again; the three-man crew quickly replaced a part. What’s more, a carbon-dioxide removal system malfunctioned and a mysterious brown cloud appeared outside the space station.
That central computer must be working for Atlantis to dock. It is needed to orient the station in the proper rendezvous position; a last-minute failure like the one on Monday would prevent a safe linkup.
If Atlantis launches on time and the Mir computer holds steady, the shuttle will dock on Saturday and remain coupled for six days. The shuttle would control the 200-plus-ton complex if Mir’s computer broke during that time.
Atlantis will deliver a new computer to Mir; it arrived from Moscow on Monday.