Cosmonauts get legless on intergalactic duty-free

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The Independent Online
THE MIR space station has had another nasty leak. This time, it's not oxygen jetting out of a punctured hull. No, this is nothing more lethal than a small but startling secret.

Earthlings may have thought Russia's and Nasa's spacemen spend their time doing research, making TV commercials and downing nothing more potent than vitamin pills. Not so. Some, it emerges, have also been pursuing livelier pleasures. Despite an official ban, Mir crew members have been tippling away as they whizz round and round the planet. In interviews marking its 12th anniversary yesterday, two returned cosmonauts, Alexander Lazutkin and Vasily Tsibliyev, said there was a bottle of cognac on board, for "stressful" occasions. There has been no shortage of the latter. The last year has seen computer crashes, a collision with a supply ship, a commander with palpitations, and a tiff with a Nasa astronaut over his poor Russian. In the worst incident, last February, the crew came close to abandoning Mir after a fire which filled it with smoke. Once it was out, US astronaut Jerry Linenger suggested the crew take vitamin pills and powdered milk to neutralise any contaminants they may have inhaled.

Russian flight controllers had another suggestion: a "little special medicine" would also help, they felt. Out came the intergalactic duty- free. "It was like any people on Earth who have weekends, holidays. We needed to relax, so we would allow ourselves a sip of cognac," said Mr Lazutkin. Yesterday the Russian space agency was monitoring the return from Mir of two cosmonauts, Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov, and Frenchman Leopold Eyharts. Well out of view of customs, they touched down in Kazakhstan. But an agency spokesman did find time to concede there is a difference between rules and practice: "Officially, alcohol is ... prohibited. Unofficially, they can bring very limited quantities. Nobody ever gets drunk." While Nasa strictly forbids alcohol, it seems the Russians have been taking nips for years.