An unmanned supply craft rammed and damaged the aging, beleaguered Russian space station Mir during a docking maneuver Wednesday, causing no immediate threat to the American and two Russian astronauts on board but slashing power to the craft and casting doubt on the future of the entire mission.
Mir’s 20-ton Spektr scientific module, where U.S. astronaut Michael Foale kept his belongings and some laboratory work, suffered a complete loss of pressure after being perforated and had to be sealed off from the rest of the space station.
The accident also caused a 50% drop in electrical power aboard the station, forcing the crew to curtail activity, shut off lights and reduce ventilation and other crucial systems.
The accident raises serious new questions about the safety standards of the Russian program and about whether Mir can be adequately repaired or will have to be abandoned, U.S. space experts said.
“This is undoubtedly the most serious incident we have had at the Mir station,” acknowledged Vsevolod P. Latyshev, spokesman for Russia’s Flight Control Center.
Indeed, the accident triggered an angry response from congressional leaders, who have been increasingly critical of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since a fire in February filled Mir with heavy smoke.
“Our confidence took a big hit today,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Science Committee. “There have been 10 major incidents on Mir since Feb. 23. The equipment is old and wearing out. With Spektr going down, we have to ask whether it is safe.”
The U.S. is paying Russia more than $400 million to conduct the joint Mir missions, viewed as a prelude to the cooperative $30-billion international space station. Wednesday’s accident could further undermine that politically fragile program, which has been hobbled by Russian financial problems.
NASA officials expressed concern about the seriousness of the incident and said they will have to rethink their cooperative missions to Mir.
“It’s a serious situation,” said American astronaut Jerry Linenger, who returned from Mir in May after battling the February fire and other problems aboard the 11-year-old outpost. “Fire aboard a spacecraft and decompression are the two most dangerous things that can happen on an orbiting vehicle.”
Although the current situation does not appear life-threatening, NASA officials will be likely to evaluate the long-term safety of MIR and whether the partially crippled space station can still conduct useful science experiments. If not, they might not replace Foale, who is due to return to Earth in September.
Wednesday’s incident was caused by an apparent malfunction of a docking system aboard the supply craft. The system is routinely used to hook up robotic supply ships with Mir. The vehicle, named Progress, was supposed to slow down as it approached Mir but instead went out of control and slammed into a solar panel.
American space experts said the docking system apparently does not have a manual override, so the astronauts could do little to prevent the accident.
John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said any attempt to repair the leak on Spektr would face a number of difficulties. Although the Russians have welding equipment aboard Mir, no such repair has ever been attempted, and it is not clear that a welded patch would be safe, he said.
Russian officials are taking a sanguine view of the situation.
“The good news is that the lives of the crew are not in danger,” Latyshev said. “The temperature and pressure in the living and working compartments is normal. Right now, nothing is affecting the spacemen’s living and working conditions. The question of evacuation has not even been raised.”
The Itar-Tass news agency said Russian cosmonauts Vasily Tsiblyev and Alexander Lazutkin were with Foale in the separate Soyuz craft at the time of the crash. Space center staff said air pressure in the rest of the station had “normalized.” The agency reported early today that the cosmonauts had turned the station toward the sun to boost power supplies.
During a television linkup with ground control, Tsiblyev said he had felt a “small bump” on impact, then heard a whistling noise as the air pressure inside the module rapidly decreased, Itar-Tass reported.
The accident apparently happened after the Russian-launched Progress vehicle, which had been docked to Mir, undocked and later tried to redock.
“I’m not clear why this was being done,” a U.S. official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It may have been an attempt to verify the docking system, because I guess there were concerns about its proper function.”
The supply craft was launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Russia immediately postponed another launch, originally planned for Friday, of a 1 1/2-ton supply vessel like the one that went out of control Wednesday.
Spektr, installed in 1995, is one of the Mir’s newest components. Mir was launched in 1986 and was intended to have a service life of only five years. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting economic chaos in Russia have kept the station in orbit for more than twice its planned life.
Sensenbrenner, the House science panel chairman, called on NASA to certify that Americans are safe on Mir, as required by a recently enacted law that reflects deteriorating confidence in Congress in the Russian space program.
“The argument I will make is that Mir is done,” Sensenbrenner said in a telephone interview. “We have to go full speed ahead on the international space station.”
Foale replaced Linenger in May after the previous series of accidents.
Linenger said Wednesday that the February fire raged for 14 minutes, with flames shooting 2 feet and chunks of molten metal spewing from a burning canister. One of two routes to escape ships was blocked, he added.
Bennett reported from Moscow, Vartabedian from Washington.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A cargo ship crashed into Russia’s Mir station Wednesday, rupturing a pressurized laboratory. The American and two Russians on board were said to be in no immediate danger, but it was unclear how much longer they could remain in space.
HOW IT HAPPENED
* Russian cosmonauts were attempting to dock unmanned supply ship by remote control into port (1) on end of Mir.
* Supply ship veered off course and slammed into a solar panel (2), causing damage to the module.
* Oxygen lost through 1-inch gash
* No power coming from solar panels
* Damaged module sealed off from rest of station