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Heat, Humidity, Fumes Plague Crew on Mir

TIMES STAFF WRITER

American astronaut Jerry Linenger showed a stiff upper lip Friday as he described deplorable conditions aboard the aged and deteriorating Russian space station Mir.

Linenger, 42, and his two Russian colleagues are suffering from nasal congestion caused by leaking chemical fumes, stifling temperatures and high humidity from Mir’s malfunctioning ventilation system.

The problems have led officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to reconsider whether to drop off another U.S. astronaut as planned next month when a space shuttle picks up Linenger.

“It’s a story here of a space station that we’ve kept going, or the Russians have kept going, for 11 years,” Linenger, who has served aboard Mir since January, told a news conference over the Mir’s radio. “They’ve done a lot of repairs up here and so I’m hoping for the best--that we’re able to fix things.”

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Linenger insisted that he “feels fine” and is confident about his safety, adding that his scientific research is going exceptionally well.

But the Mir has suffered a rash of problems since Linenger came aboard, including a flash fire in February that nearly forced the crew to abandon the spacecraft and return to Earth aboard the attached Soyuz capsule.

“Fifteen minutes into the fire, we were ready to abandon the station,” Linenger said. “The commander had already checked out the Soyuz and we were doing all the necessary action to evacuate.” The incident was one of two times that Linenger said evacuation was an option, the other incident coming when Russians had trouble docking with a supply ship. Congressional leaders already are putting pressure on the space agency to discontinue the shuttle-Mir missions, saying that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has no business endangering American astronauts.

“Mir is breaking about as fast as they can fix it,” said John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “There is so much crud in the plumbing system that it will limit the life of any new equipment they bring up to fix it.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of the House Appropriations panel that controls NASA funding, said in an interview this week that he is growing increasingly concerned for the safety of American astronauts and has discussed the matter with senior NASA officials.

NASA spokesman Rob Navias said Friday that the decision on whether to drop off astronaut Mike Foale in mid-May will be made by the agency’s senior management, including Administrator Daniel S. Goldin.

Under Goldin’s leadership, NASA agreed to send astronauts to Mir as part of an effort to prepare for operation of the international space station, which Russia joined in 1993. The station is now 11 months behind schedule because of Russian financial problems. A Russian space official criticized NASA Thursday for exaggerating Mir’s problems, including the fire. But conditions aboard Mir are as bad as U.S. astronauts have experienced in many years.

Linenger said Mir’s cooling system is leaking ethylene glycol, the principle ingredient in automotive antifreeze, which is causing respiratory congestion. In addition, carbon dioxide levels range between 5% and 8%.

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While not life-threatening, both problems are serious. Ethylene glycol is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a hazardous air pollutant, one of 188 substances so designated.

According to scientists at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta, inhaled ethylene glycol can cause throat and upper respiratory irritation, headaches and low backaches. When ingested, it can cause kidney damage.

As for carbon dioxide, concentrations of 3% can cause headaches, while concentrations of 10% or more can result in visual disturbances, tremors and even loss of consciousness.

A NASA spokesman said the Mir crew has been able to make temporary repairs to the station’s carbon dioxide scrubber, known as the Vozdukh, and that carbon dioxide levels Friday were back to normal. But the Vozdukh can only run for 30 days unless the crew can fix the main cooling loop on the Mir’s Kvrant One module.

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The cooling problems have led to temperatures that have ranged from the low 80s to the low 90s with high humidity.

The Mir crew has been busy, Linenger said, unloading supplies and tools for repairs from a recently arrived Russian supply ship. The crew used a hacksaw Thursday to cut one leaking heat exchanger from the cooling system but found afterward that the system was also leaking in other areas.

“Is this what I expected? Not really, although we are out here on the frontier and I expected the unexpected,” Linenger said. “And we are getting some of that.”

In addition to the balky Vozdukh and the leaking cooling system, Mir’s two oxygen-generation systems have malfunctioned since one caught fire in February. The crew can burn oxygen-generating candles as a backup, a NASA spokesman said. Shuttle astronauts are supposed to fly a new oxygen generator to Mir in May and stay until it is installed.

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The press conference--one of a series with U.S. astronauts who have served aboard Mir--was conducted from NASA’s Johnson and Kennedy space centers. Linenger’s answers to reporters’ questions provided a starker picture of life aboard Mir than the Russians have given.

Asked about the safety of Mir, for example, Linenger replied cautiously: “It depends on the success of the repairs. We need to look closely at the success of the repairs and make sure we have a safe environment.”

But he added later: “I’m willing to stay up here and keep working until someone says it’s time to go home.”

Times staff writers Marlene Cimons in Washington and Vanora Bennett in Moscow contributed to this story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Trouble in Space

Problems aboard the Russian Mir space station include failed generators and leaks in coolant hoses. Astronaut Jerry Linenger discussed the problems Friday.

Escape Route

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* Aboard the attached Soyuz capsule, if conditions get too dangerous

Conditions in Main Module

* Chemical fumes causing nasal congesion

* Malfunctioning ventilation leading to temperatures in 90s

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* Carbon dioxide levels from 5% to 8%

Source: Times staff.


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