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Russia: New Doubts About Space Effort

Prague, 26 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The collision yesterday between Russia's Mir space station and an unmanned supply ship not only punctured Mir, it also resurrected doubts about Moscow's future role in international space efforts.

Both Russian and U.S. space officials say cosmonauts Vasily Tsiblyev and Alexander Lazutkin and astronaut Michael Foale face no immediate danger. But the three are still coping with the consequences of the collision, which forced them to abandon and seal off one of Mir's six modules.

The incident occurred when the Progress supply craft missed a docking port and crashed into solar panels and then hit the 20,000 kilogram module and opened a hole about the size of a postage stamp, big enough to cause the loss of pressure and oxygen. Space officials say the collision both damaged the solar panels and changed their angle relative to the sun, causing a reduction in power. Tass reported today from Russian mission control that the angle had been corrected.

But Mir is still operating at reduced power. A group of some 70 Russian and American space officials are meeting near Moscow to determine how to go about repairs.

Adequate power levels are more than a matter of comfort for the crew -- it is needed to maintain vital life support systems and maneuver the station to keep it in a stable orbit.

A spokesman at Russia's Flight Control Center, Vsevolod Latyshev, called the collision "undoubtedly the most serious incident" in the station's 11-year history. The center's deputy director, Viktor Blagov, said Mir's multi-module structure prevented a disaster since it allowed for closing off the damaged compartment.

It was the latest in a string of recent mishaps to hit Mir. An American who left the craft last month shed new light yesterday on a fire that occurred during his stay. Jerry Linenger told reporters that in February, he and the four Russians and one German then aboard Mir worked to keep a fire from spreading while also preparing for a possible evacuation aboard an escape module. The fire, which erupted from a solid-fuel, oxygen-generating canister and included half-meter flames, burned itself out after 14 minutes.

Since then, Mir has suffered problems with its cooling system, its oxygen generators and its carbon dioxide removal system.

Officials with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) now say they will evaluate yesterday's collision and Mir's condition before deciding whether other American astronauts will work aboard Mir. Plans had called for two more Americans to work on the craft in separate shifts into the summer of next year.

A U.S. Congressman with influence on space matters said yesterday that ten serious incidents aboard Mir this year raise doubts about its safety. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the Science Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives said the equipment aboard Mir is old and wearing out.

Indeed, Mir -- the first portion of which was launched in 1986 -- was originally planned for only five years of use. But Russian officials recently said it could be used until 1999. The module damaged yesterday was one of its newer parts -- added in 1995. And a NASA official pointed out that yesterday's collision wasn't related to Mir's age.

The use of Mir over the last few years has been a key Russian contribution toward construction of a planned $30 billion international space station. In addition to Russia and the U.S., the effort involves Japan, Canada and major west European states. The U.S. has paid Moscow some $400 million for use of Mir and other funds have come from Britain and Japan which have sent scientists to work on board.

If NASA decides to end its involvement, U.S. observers of the Russian space program express doubt that Moscow could keep Mir operating. They point out that U.S. space shuttle flights currently deliver critically needed supplies.

And whether Moscow can continue a significant involvement in the planned international space station was already placed in doubt by the serious funding shortages facing the Russian space program.

Numerous Russian scientists and cosmonauts could still offer invaluable lessons learned from decades on the leading edge of human space flight. But observers say the hard reality is that Moscow's ability to play a leading role in the future of space rests in large part on whether it can find the cash to fund new endeavors.