High anxiety on the Aeroflot of space

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If the American astronaut Jerry Linenger was nervous, it's understandable. This was his first spacewalk, and also the first time that an American had gone outside wearing a Russian spacesuit - the space equivalent of a journey on the world's most worrying airline, Aeroflot.

Linenger was setting up experiments on the outside of the ageing Mir space station, which has been in service for more than twice its intended design life of five years.

Inside the capsule he and his two Russian colleagues have already had to contend with a fire, leaking fumes from an antifreeze pump, broken oxygen generators and an unruly carbon dioxide filtering system in the air supply.

At least the spacewalk, with the cosmonaut Vasiliy Tsibliev, began on schedule, and the Russian controllers said that the first joint American- Russian "extra-vehicular activity" went to plan. Apart from placing equipment for experiments to build new craft, they also collected cosmic dust from a container set up by previous crews.

The end of the Cold War in space came last March when the space shuttle Atlantis was docked with Mir. Since then, efforts to promote international co-operation in space have moved only slowly. Mir remains the only operating space station, since the American Skylab crashed in to Australia in 1980. The US and Russia are trying to build an international space station called Freedom, funded by a number of other countries. But Russia's economic problems have meant that the schedule has slipped. But Russia is the only country apart from the US with the expertise to put astronauts into orbit reliably.

Linenger is scheduled to return home in late May on Atlantis, to be replaced by another US astronaut who will spend four and a half months on board. Americans are scheduled to be aboard Mir continuously to gain expertise needed for the international station. But the travails of recent occupants suggests that the expertise gained may be more useful to repair old equipment than preparing for new.

Mir is slated to be replaced by an international station built co-operatively by a number of countries, including Russia and the United States.Work was scheduled to begin in November, but Nasa now says that it will start instead in October 1998 - because the Russians cannot fund the space agency and related contractors to build one of the modules required in the station.

Dan Goldin, Nasa's administrator, said: "We knew from the outset that building an international space station was going to be tremendously challenging. Space exploration is not easy or predictable." In the meantime, Mir - the Aeroflot of space - will have to suffice.