The collision was caused "beyond any doubt" by human, rather than mechanical error, said Valery Ryumin, Russian coordinator of the Mir-Nasa programme. The decision followed a thorough examination of the flight data, Mr Ryumin said: "Personally we felt pity for the boys, but the facts remain. Most likely we will have to fine them, cutting the payments due under the contract." He did not say whether the fine is intended to cover the cost of repair; spacecraft are very expensive, and Russian salaries comparatively low.
The British-born Michael Foale, who was sleeping in a space station module when the accident happened, was apparently not blamed. He is still on Mir, with a new two-man crew.
The "boys" involved - flight commander Vasily Tsibliyev, aged 43, and engineer Alexander Lazutkin, aged 39 - had apparently anticipated the verdict. When they returned to Earth in August after a six-month stint on Mir, they blamed the collision on its ageing equipment. "It's easy to find a scapegoat," Tsibliyev had told journalists within hours of landing. "But tomorrow a similar problem may happen with another cargo ship."
The crash occurred during a practice docking mission, and was the first involving a crewed spacecraft in orbit. It holed the Spektr module where Dr Foale was asleep. While sealing that off, the cosmonauts had to cut some power cables, which reduced Mir's power sometimes to dangerously low levels. Orbit control systems and oxygen generators worked patchily until the cables were repaired last week.
Manoeuvring objects in space is a tricky business because they do not move in straight lines, but in curves depending on their orbits. The cause of the accident was reckoned to be that the cargo ship was overloaded with rubbish off-loaded from Mir. This would make it move differently from one which was properly loaded - and so instead of docking safely it would overshoot the docking point and hit Mir.
Meanwhile, the current crew was busy yesterday preparing for a spacewalk, planned for Saturday, they will try to patch up the damaged station. Mir's Russian commander, Anatoly Solovyov, and Dr Foale plan to practise first by spending about five hours in their spacesuits, in order to simulate conditions for their spacewalk.
Nasa has not yet given formal authorisation for Dr Foale to take part in the venture outside the station, which is expected to last close to six hours. But the Russians have been proceeding as if he will take part. Dr Foale has made only one spacewalk, in February 1995, and never before in a Russian spacesuit. American and Russian spacesuits are built and handle differently.Reuse content