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Astronaut Knew Her Mir Trip Was in Doubt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Right up to the end, astronaut Wendy Lawrence proved she is the loyal Navy commander she was trained to be.

She stood before dozens of television cameras Wednesday at what was perhaps the biggest news conference of her 38 years and pronounced herself “ready to go” to the troubled Mir space station.

But even as the cameras rolled, Lawrence knew there was a good chance she would not be making the trip. A few hours later, NASA announced her voyage had been canceled because she is too short--even though she had been training in Russia for the mission for more than a year.

“It probably seems a little strange,” conceded Frank Culbertson, NASA’s chief for the Mir program, who decided to cancel her planned four-month stint on Mir.

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Nevertheless, Culbertson said Thursday, the highly trained U.S. Navy helicopter pilot with more than 800 shipboard landings to her credit understood NASA’s logic.

Lawrence declined through a NASA spokeswoman to discuss the switch. In her place, NASA will send her backup, physician David Wolf, who has been training with Lawrence in Russia.

NASA officials explained that the collision that damaged Mir’s hull in June changed the job requirements for the next U.S. astronaut on board. The person who replaces astronaut Michael Foale in September must be able to take spacewalks, if needed, to back up the two-man Russian crew scheduled to take off next week and begin making repairs.

At 5 feet 3 inches, Lawrence is too small to fit properly in the adjustable Orlan spacesuit used on Mir for spacewalks. Unlike the four male colleagues she has trained with in Russia--including Foale and Wolf--Lawrence never received spacewalk training.

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Culbertson said that NASA knew as long ago as October that Lawrence could not use the Orlan suit. At the time, no one tried to find an alternate suit since it did not appear necessary for her to walk in space.

Earlier in the program, Culbertson noted, a male U.S. astronaut was sent home after a few months of training at Star City because he proved to be too tall for the suit.

Wolf was scheduled to fly to Mir in January, and Lawrence is not expected to switch places with him. That trip--the last scheduled for a U.S. astronaut on Mir--probably will be assigned to Wolf’s backup, Andrew Thomas, because he also has spacewalk training and can fit into a Russian suit.

As a consolation prize, Lawrence will ride in the shuttle in September when it delivers Wolf to the station and picks up Foale.

Wolf, who received spacewalk training in the United States, will now need a crash course in how to operate the Russian equipment, setting back the shuttle launch until as late as Sept. 28. He is now scheduled to take one spacewalk previously assigned to a Russian cosmonaut.

During the news conference that starred Lawrence on Wednesday, Wolf sat quietly at the far end of the table without being asked a question. Afterward, he said he was prepared to go to Mir if called upon and that he was not perturbed by problems that have plagued the station this year.

“I’m ready to go,” said Wolf, a veteran of one shuttle flight. “It seems like a good spacecraft to me. I don’t worry about it any more than any other space module. I’m happy with it.”


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