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Western Press Review: After Mishap, Mir Under Scrutiny As Senescent

  • Don Hill

Prague, 27 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Space station Mir's collision Wednesday with a cargo craft generates worried Western press commentary about the station's safety and its continued usefulness as a research venue.

THE TIMES OF LONDON: Little need exists for manned station

The newspaper editorializes today that the "patched-up Mir has outlived its useful life." The newspaper says: "Mission controllers managing the current expedition on the Mir orbiting space station reckoned that the collision with a cargo craft on Wednesday was a five-point emergency, only two points less than the order to abandon ship. The three men aboard the venerable Russian craft have had a lucky escape." The Times says: "The accident has underlined the age and vulnerability of the world's first and only space station. Mir has now lasted twice as long as its planned space life, and has been kept going only by ingenuity and skilful repairs."

The editorial says: "The crew members have made light of the collision, demonstrating the humorous resilience that allowed the Russian space program to survive economic difficulties and technological challenges. On the ground, however, there are fewer smiles. American doubts about the wisdom and safety of their post-Cold War co-operation have been reinforced." It says: "Scientists are already questioning the need for a permanent manned station."

The Times' conclusion: "Apart from prestige -- less a factor with the ending of the Soviet-American rivalry in space -- there is little need now for a manned station. There will always be the spur of human curiosity and endeavour to conquer the outer elements. But much now depends on how the crew members aboard Mir resolve their difficulties."

NEW YORK TIMES: Recent setback only one of many

In his report yesterday on the crash, Michael R. Gordon included this analysis: "The collision prompted searching questions about the safety of the Mir, the jewel of the once-proud Russian space program and a prominent symbol of American and Russia cooperation in space. In recent months, the aging space station has suffered a fire and had a near collision with a supply vessel. The problems with the Mir also follow other highly publicized space setbacks, notably the failure of Russia's Mars probe, which crashed in South America last year."

Gordon wrote: "The immediate problem for the crew was power. With only half of the craft's usual power, the crew has shut down many components. The astronauts could quickly leave, using the Soyuz spacecraft docked at Mir. But American and Russian officials said that there is no current plan to do so."

WASHINGTON POST: Russians defensive about safety standards

David Hoffman writes today in a news analysis that even Russian space officials acknowledge that Mir may be nearing the end of its useful life, but respond defensively to questions about their safety standards. Hoffman says: "The director of Russia's space agency, Yuri Koptev, insisted Mir's current flight would not be interrupted because of Wednesday's collision with a cargo vessel, and he angrily dismissed the suggestion by a congressman in Washington that the United States might pull out of cooperation with Russia on the Mir program if safety could not be assured." The writer says: "Koptev reacted testily to the statement Wednesday by Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the House Science Committee, that NASA should conduct a safety review of Mir."

Hoffman writes: "The station, originally designed to spend five years in space, is in its 11th year and has been plagued with problems. The docking maneuver that failed Wednesday also had been attempted unsuccessfully in the spring, and it is not known why it was tried again."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Mir's research capacity in danger

In addition to the human dangers, Mir is in danger of losing much or most of its research capability, Ralph Vartabedian and Vanora Bennett wrote yesterday. The writers said: "Although experts said conditions on Mir are safe despite a 50 percent cut in Mir's electrical capacity that forced the crew to vastly reduce support systems, it is unclear how much of the ship's research capability can be restored. NASA officials are worried about the complexity of repairing the stricken outpost, which is now 11 years old and well beyond its planned life expectancy."

They wrote: "Koptev said there is no reason to evacuate the crew, which would leave only if air pressure fell to three-quarters of its usual level or below. Still, Mir is little more than an orbiting station wagon -- at least temporarily. Even at the best of times, (U.S. Mir crewman Michael) Foale has said, working on the aging space station is like 'a very dirty and grimy camping trip in an old car.' " The analysis said: "The accident highlights the very risks that critics of the U.S. space station say have been underplayed: that a depressurization accident is a real possibility that could either jeopardize human life or cause losses worth tens of billions of dollars."

In a separate analysis, the same Los Angeles Times staff writers also pointed to safety concerns. They wrote: "The accident raises serious new questions about the safety standards of the Russian program and about whether Mir can be repaired adequately or will have to be abandoned, U.S. space experts said." The writers said: "Indeed, the accident triggered an angry response by U.S. congressional leaders, who have been increasingly critical of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since a fire last February filled Mir with heavy smoke."

They wrote: "Although the current situation does not appear life-threatening, NASA officials will likely evaluate the long-term safety of Mir and whether the partially crippled space station can still conduct useful science experiments. If not, they would not replace Foale, who is due to return to Earth in September."

MIAMI HERALD: U.S. experiments ruined in accident

On the open question of the continued viability of Mir's scientific programs, Martin Merzer and Phil Long wrote yesterday that little has been determined yet. The Miami Herald is the leading newspaper in the U.S. state of Florida, where the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Cape Canaveral space center is located. The newspaper's writers said: "This much already was known: Many of the American science experiments aboard Mir were lost, ruined by the loss of pressure. Though the adventure of human spaceflight is heady, those biological, radiation and materials experiments are the budgetary basis of the U.S.-Russian partnership. NASA is paying the Russian space agency about $400 million for its astronauts to work on Mir."

They said also: "The predicament of Mir's crew reminded many of the ill-fated moon mission of Apollo 13, the subject of a hit movie exactly two years ago. In that crisis, three U.S. astronauts -- desperately low on oxygen and power - limped home aboard a spacecraft crippled by an explosion. This latest accident also aroused memories of the explosion of shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff in January 1986. All seven astronauts on the shuttle died in that catastrophe."