280 miles up, power drains away

13-day wait for vital spacewalk
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The Independent Online
The three astronauts on board the Mir space station face an increasingly uncomfortable wait of at least 10 days before they can perform an emergency spacewalk to repair the damage caused by a collision with another spacecraft.

After a day without sleep, the three men have been told to dim the lights and stop exercising in order to reduce the power drain on the space station, which has lost more than one-third of its power following the crash on Tuesday morning as they were practising docking manoeuvres with an unmanned spacecraft, the Progress.

A Russian rocket with the necessary equipment to perform the repairs, including patches for the hull and solar cell components, will be sent to Mir. But it will not take off before 4 July because of the time needed to gather the items and plan the details of the repair mission. The US space agency Nasa said last night that a Shuttle mission blasting off this weekend cannot dock with Mir, and so could not offer help.

A committee of 72 Russian experts held a nine-hour meeting yesterday to plan the next stage of the recovery, which will require a spacewalk to fix a hole about the size of a stamp in the Spektr module, one of six on the 11-year-old station, and the damage caused to one of its solar panels, which generate power for the craft. The Spektr has been sealed off from the rest of the space station.

Although the crew could abandon Mir if necessary, taking the Soyuz spacecraft which forms one of its six modules back to Earth, Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency, said that there is no question of doing so at present. Russia fears that without anybody aboard, the 100-tonne Mir might spiral out of control back towards Earth.

The Russian Space Agency acknowledged the gravity of the situation. "After the collision we estimated the critical situation on the Mir orbiting station at five on a seven-point scale," said deputy mission chief Sergei Krikalyov. "Now we must produce the necessary equipment for repairs."

Planning for the spacewalk will have already begun, with teams both in Russia's Space City and at Nasa using virtual reality models of the spacecraft to plan the most efficient way to carry out the repairs. The power loss on board Mir has made it harder to decide what is necessary, because the crew has not been able to send back television pictures, and communications are limited to about 15 minutes during every orbit, each of which takes 45 minutes.

The virtual reality models of the space station were developed by a British company, VR Solutions of Salford. Its managing director, Bob Stone, was yesterday hopeful that the problems could be solved. He also suggested the accident could have been caused by the astronauts forgetting the simple mechanics of changing orbit. "It's not like Star Wars - things don't just go in a straight line when you turn on the thruster. When you're moving around in orbit you're actually going up and down to change speeds - you get closer or further away from the Earth, and your path follows a curve, not a straight line. Maybe they forgot that."

British-born Michael Foale, 40, had to leave behind many personal effects as well as scientific experiments when he abandoned Spektr, where he had slept. Yesterday his first request was for an electric shaver and a toothbrush: "Maybe three tubes of toothpaste," he radioed down. "That would do it."

Even before the crash, life on board Mir was not glamorous. One visiting astronaut likened it to "living inside a giant vacuum cleaner": the pumps and vents required to keep moving fresh air around the station's modules create a constant din. But they are necessary, because there are no convection currents to keep it moving as on Earth.

Sleep is necessary but elusive; crew "lie" attached to the walls by bungee cords. But as the space station orbits the planet so quickly, darkness is replaced by light every 45 minutes. However, activities that we take for granted on Earth become immensely complex. The body insists that there should be an "up" and "down", for orientation. "Everything floats up here," Dr Foale wrote to his one-year-old son by e-mail earlier this year. "I've reverted back to my childhood. I have had to learn how to clean myself, how to brush my teeth, how to eat without making a mess; and yes, even how to use a toilet."