Cosmonauts back on Earth after nightmare aboard Mir

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Two Russian cosmonauts who endured a jinxed six months on the orbiting Mir space station returned safely to Earth yesterday after wishing the team which replaced them better luck.

"I hope that everything bad that we've had will leave with us. See you on Earth," said Commander Vasily Tsibliyev, before floating with his crewmate, Alexander Lazutkin, into the airlock between Mir and the Soyuz rocket taking them home. The remaining three men are due to try a complex spacewalk next Wednesday to try to fix a dangerous hole in one of Mir's modules.

The departing cosmonauts landed three hours later, and 250 miles lower, on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Russian TV showed officials at Mission Control clapping when word came through that the capsule, slowed by giant parachutes, had touched down.

President Boris Yeltsin has suggested "human error" was behind a space collision in June, which, together with an unrelated fire on Mir some weeks earlier, made the mission the most disastrous - and strenuous - in the ailing station's 11-year history. But few expect the cosmonauts to be criticised. Instead they are likely to be treated as heroes for having persevered despite a host of problems.

Commander Tsibliyev has had a stress-related irregular heartbeat since the accident, caused when he was practising docking an unpiloted cargo craft with Mir manually. The cargo ship missed and hit the Spektr scientific module, holing it and causing a desperate 20-minute effort to disconnect it from the rest of the station to prevent drastic decompression of the whole complex.

The new Russian crew, Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov, will bear the main burden of linking Mir back to Spektr, whose solar panels contribute a good deal of the station's power. Michael Foale, the British-born astronaut who shared Tsibliyev and Lazutkin's nightmare mission, is waiting for an Atlantis shuttle to pick him up in September, and will probably take a back seat during the repairs.

Helen Womack & Charles Arthur

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