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Russia: NASA Endorses Mir; Congressman Does Not

Washington, 26 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Despite an endorsement of its safety from the director of the U.S. space program, the chairman of an important U.S. congressional committee says Russia's Mir space station is not safe enough for American astronauts.

Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee, says his hopes and prayers will go with the American astronaut flying toward Mir today. But Sensenbrenner says he does not support the decision to send astronaut David Wolf to Mir aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) head Daniel Goldin announced on Thursday that Wolf will be aboard Atlantis on its mission to Mir. The decision whether to send Wolf to Mir was delayed for several days after experts inside and outside NASA reviewed Mir and its safety systems because of a series of malfunctions that have beset the vessel in recent months.

"This careful and thorough review of the shuttle-Mir mission analyzed risk, readiness and, foremost, safety," Goldin said at a press briefing.

"We move forward not only because it is safe, but for the important scientific and human experience we can gain only from Mir. As we prepare for the June 1998 launch of the first element of the international space station, nothing can beat the hands-on, real-time training aboard Mir."

Goldin said there are always risks in space flight. He said NASA officials are "deeply touched" by the public interest in the flight and fears for the Mir crew members' well-being.

But, he said, "the decision to continue our joint participation aboard Mir should not be based on emotion or politics. It should not be based on fear. A decision should be based - and is based - on scientific and technical assessment of the mission safety."

The director of Russia's Mir-shuttle program, Valery Ryumin, said, "I never doubted that the American side would go ahead and continue the permanent presence of the American astronauts on board the Mir station."

Ryumin admitted Mir has seen better days: "If you wanted a comment on the status of the station, this is definitely not the absolutely best time." While Mir's central computer is working at present, he said, engineers in both countries have devised ways in which to attempt a docking by Atlantis if the computer fails again.

Atlantis was going to Mir anyway, with or without Wolf. It is to bring supplies and new equipment to Mir and retrieve astronaut Michael Foale, who has been on the station for about five months. Wolf's trip was held up when computer failures on Mir last week raised new questions about its safety.

Congressman Sensenbrenner says those questions have not been answered to his satisfaction. His committee controls NASA's budget. Sensenbrenner supports space cooperation with Russia, but he says the risks on Mir outweigh any benefits to be gained from continuing participation by U.S. astronauts.

At a press conference, Sensenbrenner also said NASA employees who worked on the safety reviews may not have been totally candid in their reports because of their interest in maintaining the shuttle-Mir program. He said "ignoring warnings can lead to tragedy," reminding reporters of the deaths of seven astronauts when the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift off in 1986. Investigations later blamed NASA for ignoring safety problems that might have contributed to the disaster.

Sensenbrenner says the safety reviews that guided Goldin's decision was only undertaken last week, and he says that is not enough time for a thorough job. He also contends that Mir has never been subjected to a comprehensive "top-to-bottom" safety study.