Crew members of the crippled Russian space station Mir got what they sorely needed Friday - a high-profile, white-knuckle mission that they carried off with confidence, humor and, most important, success.
Laboring for nearly four hours in the dark, airless interior of the Spektr module, two Russian cosmonauts managed to reconnect a set of power cables, replace a hatch and make a quick search for the puncture that had forced abandonment of the 40-foot-long capsule two months ago.
Relieved Russian ground control officials said the cables now must be fastened to Mir and tested before full power can be restored to the station. Solar panels on the damaged Spektr helped generate electricity for the space station. The crew is scheduled to have a two-day rest before follow-up work resumes Monday.
Mir has been operating at about half-power without Spektr.
After a tense start marred by the discovery of a glove leak in flight engineer Pavel Vinogradov’s spacesuit, the repair job seemed to go without a glitch. After a delay of more than an hour, Vinogradov replaced the glove and got to work inside the Spektr, with flight commander Anatoly Solovyev assisting behind him at the hatch door.
They worked in stiff, bulky spacesuits that “have the flexibility of steel-belted radial tires,” according to John Pike, director of the space policy project of the Federation of American Scientists.
Some National Aeronautics and Space Administration and private officials had worried that floating debris, broken glass and other obstructions might greet the Russians when they opened the sealed module for the first time since it was rammed by a supply ship during a docking maneuver June 25.
But the cosmonauts said the interior was relatively orderly, despite the haste in which the previous crew had disconnected the power cables and sealed off the module after the docking accident.
They said they were unable, in the short time left after reconnecting the power links, to pinpoint exactly where the Spektr module was punctured. A space walk on the exterior of the module - to fix the hole - is scheduled tentatively for Sept. 3.
By pulling off the repair job, rated by some space experts as one of the most hazardous missions in history because no one knew what lay in wait inside the Spektr, the cosmonauts may have given the aging Mir a new lease on life.
The 11-year-old station suffered a series of technical problems, emergencies and breakdowns over the past six months, sparking debate in the United States over whether Americans should continue to work on the station.
Michael Foale, the NASA astronaut who is on Mir now, gave the Russian ship an enthusiastic endorsement at the end of Friday’s operation.
“I think this is a super day,” he announced when his two Russian crewmates had emerged from the damaged Spektr. “This is an excellent demonstration of how flexible … the system is here on space station Mir.”
Foale sat out the repair job in the Soyuz escape rocket, speaking with the cosmonauts and with mission control by radio and staying ready just in case the Mir crew had to abandon ship and return to Earth.
He also played straight man to the Russians, who loosened up as they worked, cracking jokes and bantering with officials at ground control. The cosmonauts teased Foale when they found some of his personal pictures floating near his old bed. Reporting the discovery of “white crystals flying around like soap,” Vinogradov quipped over the radio that “Michael is saying it’s probably his shampoo.”
Even officials on the ground relaxed enough to poke gentle fun at their own beleaguered program.
After the cosmonauts reported that some fans and pumps still were working inside the Spektr module, a ground controller responded with a laugh: “So, Russian technology works even in a vacuum!”
But the tension of the last few weeks, which have seen a new outbreak of computer glitches and technical malfunctions, also seeped through in the conversation between the Earth base and Mir. At times, the cosmonauts cursed softly. At other times, they let out a relieved, “Thank God.”
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