Mir astronauts reveal brush with disaster

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The three astronauts on the crippled space station Mir revealed yesterday for the first time just how close they had come to disaster when they collided with the supply craft on 25 June. The Russian commander, Viktor Tsibliyev, said that he had held on desperately to the controls to prevent the supply ship crashing into the main module of the space station.

"If it had hit us directly, it would have punctured the core module directly, and we would have all died," he said. "Until the very end I was holding the handles to try and get the craft not to hit the station. If it had hit ... we would have either died or we would have just been metal floating in space."

The seriousness of the accident emerged in the days following the collision, but neither Russian ground control nor any of the astronauts had hitherto intimated how narrowly the crew escaped death.

Mr Tsibliyev was speaking during a 20-minute video link-up with journalists at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Russian ground control near Moscow. He came close to admitting yesterday that it was his initial error that caused the accident, but he did not go into detail.

Michael Foale (pictured), the British-born astronaut on Mir, defended the continued participation of US astronauts in the project and adopted an upbeat attitude to the recent problems. "This experience is really, really valuable for us now," he said, but stressed that the real value of what had been learnt would become apparent only in the longer term, when the planned international space station went into operation.

Mary Dejevsky, Washington