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Russia: Mir Accident Worries NASA And U.S. Lawmakers

Washington, 27 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The latest accident on the Russian space station Mir has American lawmakers and space experts worried about the future of the 11-year-old space station.

The accident happened Wednesday when a supply ship slammed into Spektr, a Mir laboratory module. The collision damaged a solar panel and put a 2.5-centimeter hole into Spektr. Russian cosmonauts and American astronaut, Michael Foale, are working with ground control in both countries to fix the holes, which are causing decompression and power failure.

As space experts work to stabilize the damaged station, some lawmakers in Washington are raising questions that could signal the end of America's participation on Mir. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) said that maintaining the space station costs too much money for American taxpayers.

"The reasons the Mir has been kept going five years beyond its design capability is because it is a huge foreign currency earner for Russia," he said. "And a lot of that foreign currency is dollars right out of the U.S. taxpayer's pockets."

Sensenbrenner is chairman of the House of Representatives Science Committee. The committee oversees the U.S. space program and helps to set the budget for U.S. space activities.

Currently the U.S. is paying the Russian space agency about $400 million for astronauts to live on Mir until the summer of 1998.

Other critics say that Russia has cut back on safety measures because its space program is under financial strain. They say that the risks outweigh the benefits of sending Americans to the space station to conduct scientific experiments.

Mir's safety record is also a concern. Mir has been plagued by technical problems in recent months. In February, oxygen canisters caught fire, but burned themselves out 90 seconds later. In March, the oxygen generators broke down, forcing the crew to rely on the oxygen canisters that caught fire the month before. Eight other incidents have jeopardized crews since Mir went into orbit.

Viktor Blagov, deputy director of Russian Mission Control, says that Mir is solid enough to survive small accidents.

"It worked like a ship, which can keep afloat if one compartment is damaged," he said.

American astronaut Jerry Linenger was aboard Mir when the oxygen fire broke out. He told the media that the recent collision on Mir was very serious. He said that fire and decompression on a spacecraft are the most dangerous problems that could occur on a ship in orbit.

But Frank Culbertson, manager of the Shuttle-Mir program for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), told reporters that NASA will not make rash decisions about whether or not to send astronauts to Mir. He said the strong partnership with Russia and the American Shuttle program is important.

"It would be more of a problem for the Russians to support the Mir without the Shuttle coming and going, but we're very good partners. We have a joint program here that we're both committed to and we would like to see committment from all of our partners."

Still, the mixed reactions from some American officials does not mean the U.S. will end its future plans in space with the international community. Fifteen countries, including Germany, Denmark, Italy and Belgium are planning to launch an international space station in 1999. Astronauts from countries around the world are currently training in the U.S. for the mission.

The international space station will be significantly larger than Mir. The first major section of the station has just been completed. Gretchen McClain, who's the director of the International Space Station Project, says NASA will learn lessons from the accident on Mir.

"The reason why we're doing this activity with the Mir right now was to set out objectives," she said. "Those objectives were to learn to work with the Russians...and do risk mitigation, that we could apply those lessons learned onto what we were doing on the international space station, as well as continue to do useful science."

NASA officials said that most of the experiments in progress at the time of the collision on Mir are probably lost.