The commander of Russia’s Mir space station on Wednesday defended his performance during a June training exercise that ended when the outpost collided with a cargo capsule he was piloting remotely.
Vasily Tsibliev said his efforts to steer the capsule prevented the June 25 accident from becoming fatal. Instrument failure played a role in the collision, he said.
Though Tsibliev, flight engineer Alexander Lazutkin and U.S. astronaut Mike Foale survived the impact, the station lost half of its electrical power.
Citing safety concerns, critics have called for an early end to a U.S. presence on Mir that was scheduled to end in mid-1998.
The cause of the June collision is still under investigation. But allegations of “pilot error” on Tsibliev’s part and that the Progress cargo capsule had been overloaded with trash by the station crew have surfaced as possible contributors, if not causes.
During his first interview with U.S. news media since the incident, Tsibliev said he was not receiving data on his navigational displays as the capsule neared.
“The impact was unexpected,” the 43-year-old commander said. “Until the very end, I was holding the handles (controls) to try and get the craft not to hit the station.
“I was attempting to brake it and cause the craft to go by. If I had not been doing that, I’m sure it would have hit the station directly,” Tsibliev said through a translator. “If it had hit us directly, it would have punctured the core module directly, and we would have all died.”
As the Progress neared Mir, it swerved below the station and its core module, where the three crew members were gathered. The capsule sideswiped Mir’s Spektr science module and punctured its aluminum hull before rebounding away from the outpost.
In response to orders from his Russian colleagues, Foale moved toward the three-man Soyuz capsule that serves as the station’s lifeboat. The 40-year-old American initially thought the three men would bail out.
However, as the crew assessed the emergency, Lazutkin and Foale decided to isolate the leaking Spektr by quickly closing its hatch. To do so, they had to disconnect power cables that linked the module’s solar arrays to the rest of the outpost. “In those moments, you don’t get frightened,” Foale said Wednesday.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.