280 miles up, power drains away

Astronaut in call to abandon Mir
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The Independent Online
The accident that partially disabled the Mir space station has exposed increasing tensions between the US and Russia over what had until recently been one of the symbolic successes of the post Cold War years: superpower co-operation in space.

Yesterday, a group of US congressmen, headed by the chairman of the Science Committee in the House of Representatives, James Sensenbrenner, called for a re-examination of the US-Russia space co-operation agreement and asked whether Mir was safe enough for American astronauts. Since February, he said, there had been no fewer than 10 "major crises" involving Mir. "We have to make a determination if the science we are doing up there is worth the American lives we are risking," he said.

He called for a "top to bottom" assessment of Mir's safety, including a personal guarantee from the US space administration, Nasa, that the craft meets US safety standards, before any more Americans were sent there. A bill to this effect is at present before the Senate, but has not yet been considered.

Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded Apollo 13, said last night that it was time to retire the space station.

Speaking on BBC 2's Newsnight, he compared the plight of the crew on the stricken space station to his experiences on Apollo 13 and said he understood how the crew must be feeling.

"The same anxieties and motivation that is going on now happened to us on 13," he said. "They will be trying to figure out how to repair the craft and how long they should stay on the ship."

He said that both the Americans and the Russians should decide together that it was time to leave Mir before there was an accident that would be detrimental to the whole space programme. "The Russians and the Americans ought to work together and say lets give Mir a dignified retirement and take all the money that we are using to keep the Mir going and put it towards the module that the Russians are trying to build.

"I think now is the time that we retire Mir. We will still have the shuttle and we have had Russians on the shuttle before.

"I think they are going to have to make a decision on how long they want to keep a crew up there and when the next crew comes up there has got to be some hard decisions.

"If the Russians wish to continue to use it then it is incumbent upon the United States to decide whether to go up there or not and I personally would not do that. I would say this is the last of the American crew going up there because the risk is greater than the rewards."

That view was opposed yesterday by Colin Foale, father of the British- born astronaut currently on board the stricken craft. Mr Foale said he had "enormous admiration" for the Russian achievement with Mir and did not think the mission should be ended. "And I don't think [Michael] would want that either."

Mike McCurry, a White House spokesman, also insisted that the US remained committed to the Mir programme.

However, Mr Sensenbrenner's call for a re-evaluation of US-Russian co- operation, was echoed by a number of leading politicians. And a succession of space experts, including a former US astronaut and participant in the Mir programme, also indicated that the latest accident had widened - perhaps fatally - an existing rift between the Americans and the Russians on co- operation in space.