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Cosmonaut Casts Doubt on Bid to Fix Space Station

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Russian commander of the stricken Mir space station expressed concern Saturday that its three-man crew may be unable to fix the 11-year-old orbital complex after its worst-ever accident.

The pessimistic words of cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev--possibly reflecting exhaustion and dispiritedness after four days of crisis operations--contrasted with upbeat forecasts by Russian Space Agency officials predicting a successful repair mission.

But if Tsibliyev’s doubts prove well-grounded and the two Russians and U.S. astronaut Michael Foale are unable to recover energy from four solar panels isolated by Wednesday’s collision with a supply module, it is possible that the world’s only operating space station will have to idle for weeks more or even be abandoned.

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Mission Control Center specialists radioed Tsibliyev aboard the power-rationed Mir complex early Saturday to discuss plans for a spacewalk within the damaged Spektr module that has been sealed off since it was punctured and depressurized by the wayward supply craft.

Once another supply ship carrying equipment for repairs reaches Mir around July 7, Tsibliyev and fellow cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin would don spacesuits, empty the air from inside the still-functioning components of the space station, then squeeze through the 2-foot-wide hatch connecting Mir with Spektr, where they would attempt to reconnect the marooned solar panels with Mir’s main electrical grid.

While the cosmonauts work inside Spektr, Foale would man the Soyuz TM “lifeboat” capsule in case the operation goes wrong and the trio is forced to return to Earth.

Ground controllers say the success of the operation hinges on whether the cosmonauts can run the electrical cables through a new hatch door--a specially designed portal being ferried to Mir that would accommodate the cables while still allowing an airtight seal between Spektr and the Mir cabin.

“I have never done this kind of work. Without training, it will not be possible to do this job,” Tsibliyev told flight coordinator Vladimir Solovyov during a radio exchange audible to all in the control room.

Solovyov assured the cosmonaut that “we will help you,” and encouraged the Mir crew to begin planning and practicing for the risky rescue work as soon as today.

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The extent to which the trio can prepare for the repair mission has not been made clear, but officials said after the accident knocked out as much as 40% of Mir’s power supply that only essential equipment would be kept running. That presumably rules out any practice depressurizations of Mir’s interior, for reasons of energy conservation and crew safety.

Tsibliyev has also been overheard in radio communications to have voiced concern that the hatch between Mir and Spektr may be too narrow to allow the cosmonauts to pass through in their bulky spacesuits.

“They’ve certainly not done anything like that before,” a NASA official said of the planned spacewalk into the damaged Spektr module.

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But he noted that the Mir crew has been successful in restarting much of the vital equipment that was turned off after the accident to conserve power, promoting a more hopeful outlook among the men aboard Mir and ground controllers.

“I think they’re at the point where they can sustain themselves,” he said of Mir’s occupants, who have been able over the last two days to restore power to the spacecraft’s toilet and resume heating their prepackaged meals. “Everyone seems to have become a great deal more relaxed.”

The Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed space official here as saying that normal lighting had been restored inside Mir’s living and working spaces by Saturday night.

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Earlier in the day, however, Foale told NASA that the crewmates had been working by flashlight.

Solovyev and other Russian space officials contend they will be able to talk the Mir crew through the repair procedures. NASA colleagues also are increasingly confident the Mir station will be put back in order even if the space crew has to wait for reinforcements with the next space shuttle Atlantis visit in early September.

“You’re talking about a multibillion-dollar investment, and if I were running the show I’d be fighting to hang on as long as the astronauts’ safety is not threatened,” said one space official here. “If the downside is letting it all go, I think a whole lot of effort is going to be expended to bring it back into operation.”

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