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Russian Space Program Hits Snags Fire On Mir; Cash Problems To Delay International Project

Boston Globe

Russia’s beleaguered space program suffered two new setbacks Monday when officials reported a small fire on the aging Mir space station and a giant cash problem back on Earth that will hold up an international project to launch Mir’s replacement.

The six astronauts aboard Mir, including American Jerry Linenger, had to don gas masks when a blaze burned for 90 seconds in the 12-year-old Russian space station’s air filtering unit. No one was seriously hurt and Russian officials said there was no need to evacuate the crew, although the astronauts were taking medication for irritation caused by fumes from burning electronic cables.

The fire Sunday came just hours before the head of the Russian space agency, Yury Koptev, announced that money woes had forced a delay of the launch of the first module of the international Alpha space station, casting new doubts on Moscow’s ability to participate in the project.

The United States, the European Space Agency, Canada, Italy and Japan are also involved in the Alpha station, which is due to go into operation in 2003. A Russian cargo and fuel module is scheduled to go into orbit first, followed by a segment made by the United States and a third module, where the astronauts on the Alpha will live, also to be built by Russia.

Koptev said Monday that the launch of the first Alpha module, completed in Moscow last year, would be pushed back seven months to June 1998. He said the reason for the delay was that Moscow’s Khrunichev center, which is building the Russian segments of the Alpha station, lacked the funding to finish the third segment.

But U.S. officials have questioned whether Russia should be allowed to remain on the project. During a visit to Moscow last week, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Republican chairman of the House Science Committee and a vocal critic of Russia’s contribution, said Moscow’s tardiness had put the entire Alpha program in jeopardy.

Sensenbrenner said the countries sponsoring Alpha would have to decide by the end of March whether to exclude Russia from the project.

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