Mir cosmonauts hit back at their critics

`Many things we need on the station just aren't there. It derives from Earth, from our economy'
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The Independent Online
Russia's troubled Mir space station suffered yet another technical blow yesterday, as the crew hit back at critics who have blamed them for its misfortunes.

The Russian-US crew delayed a planned docking with its cargo ship because of a computer programming error. The manoeuvre was to repeat a procedure carried out on 25 June, when a different Progress cargo vehicle docking with Mir collided with the station's Spektr module, causing a loss of power in the worst accident of the space station's 11-year history.

The error had nothing to do with Mir itself and could easily be corrected, Vladimir Solovyov, of Mission Control, told reporters. The station, launched in 1986 with an intended service life of five years, has been dogged by all manner of technical faults from a blockage in the cosmic toilet to a failure of the oxygen supply system.

Vasily Tsibliyev, the commander on Mir at the time of the crash, lashed out angrily against critics on the ground who have hinted he was to blame for the mission's misfortunes, saying lack of finance had reduced the 11-year-old station to a state where accidents were bound to happen.

Commander Tsibliyev said he had only resorted to manual methods of docking the Progress craft on 25 June because his monitors for automatic docking were on the blink.

President Boris Yeltsin himself has been among critics who, not waiting for the results of an official inquiry, have spoken of "human error".

Visibly upset, Commander Tsibliyev, who has been suffering from a stress- related irregular heart beat, told a news conference he and his colleague had risked their lives to keep Mir going. "We did not think about jumping ship, although in theory at that time we should have thrown everything aside and raced into the escape capsule." Lack of finance was the real problem. "Unfortunately, many things we need on the station just aren't there. It all derives from Earth, from our economy, our affairs, our poor lives," he said.

The Communists used to seek scapegoats when things went wrong to damage the prestige of the old Soviet Union. It remains to be seen whether Tsibliyev and Lazutkin will be similarly humiliated in the new democratic Russia. But they have not yet received medals, which are usually given as a matter of course to cosmonauts on their return to Earth.