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Russia: Mir Space Station Aids Planning For Future Projects

  • Elizabeth Weinstein

Prague, 15 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Images of smiling Mir crew members reveling at the beauty of Earth during yesterday's three-hour spacewalk set a positive tone for space officials who are still recovering from Mir's rocky ride in 1997.

Last year was the worst year on record for the 12 year-old Russian space station. After a fire, a near-fatal collision, computer malfunctions and oxygen failures, Mir acquired names such as 'orbiting station wagon' and 'patched-up Mir' from the press. And when U.S. astronaut Michael Foale returned from his mission on the station, he compared it to "a very dirty and grimy camping trip in an old car."

But despite all those mishaps, Russian space organizations and their counterparts in the United States are looking forward with optimism. Wednesday's spacewalk - where crew members measured how the station is faring in space's environment - is one example of how space officials are using problems from Mir as solutions for long term projects like the International Space Station (ISS) slated for launch in 1999.

Chris Faranetta, the Deputy Managing Director of American Operations for NPO Energia, a Russian space developer, said that the company is using its experience with Mir to boost safety and technology on future missions.

In his words: "There's a tremendous amount of experience that has been gained in the area of materials, in the area of learning how to fix things that were originally not intended to be fixed, and that's one of the greatest aspects of having access to the Mir space station."

Faranetta said that NPO Energia and space officials are working to make sure the problems which plagued Mir in 1997 don't happen in 1998. Russian space officials have reduced the potential for fire by changing the procedure used with oxygen candles, which started the February fire last year. Instead of letting the candles burn freely, crew members will have to monitor the candles at all times to lessen a fire hazard.

But computer failures, which often cause the station to spin out of control, may be uncontrollable for the time being. The shutdowns are "inherent in the design of the computer," Faranetta said, and won't be resolved any time soon. Engineers are working on improving the electronics of Mir's computer system and plan on applying the technology to the ISS.

NASA officials are also playing it safe. Before yesterday's spacewalk, ground officials at the space agency were considering canceling astronaut's David Wolf's participation in the exercise because his space suit was defective. NASA official Greg Harbaugh said at a news conference that instead of using the American suit, Wolf would use a Russian space suit. The choice was the safest option, Harbaugh said, and it would also test the suit for future use on the ISS, since, in some cases, Americans would be using Russian suits on the station.

Faranetta said that Mir officials learned from the station's biggest achievement in 1997 - restoring power from the damaged Spektr science module to the rest of the station after the June cargo ship crash. He said, "The power conditions on the Mir are near normal now, and that has enabled them to go from just running the station in a survival mode to running the space station and running experiments that consume a lot of power."

Next week the American shuttle Endeavor will blast off for Mir to replace Wolf with astronaut Andy Thomas. During Endeavor's docking with Mir, crew members will transfer more than 3,000 kilograms of experiments, supplies and hardware to the station. Thomas will replace Wolf, who will leave after four months aboard the station. Following Wednesday's spacewalk to test Mir's resistance, crew members are expected to do more bio-medical research, remote sensing of the Earth and astrophysical research.

Russian officials are also hoping to put three special crew members aboard this year - two actors and a former government official. A Russian film director has said he would like to send two actors to Mir for the first drama filmed in space. Russian space officials have welcomed the idea but say that the huge sums of money involved could stall the project. And this fall Yuri Baturin, the former secretary of Russia's Defense Council, is expected to become the first bureaucrat to spend time on Mir. Baturin is now training for the flight.