US astronaut told she is too short for space

Pity poor Wendy Lawrence. Having studied and trained for most of her 38-year life to be an astronaut, she failed at the last hurdle - on a technicality. At 5ft 3in, she was judged too short.

Just days before Ms Lawrence, an American, was due to blast off for the crippled space station Mir along with two Russian astronauts, she was stood down because of her height. She has been replaced by the rather taller David Wolf.

The decision came so late that Ms Lawrence had already given a press conference, partly in Russian, in which she had expressed her "big desire" to go to space, her all-American confidence in her ability to discharge her responsibilities, the feasibility of the salvage operation that she and the crew were to perform on Mir, and in the bright future for Russian- American co-operation in space.

It was only hours later that NASA decreed that she would have to be replaced.

Because of the precarious state of Mir, all three astronauts in the new crew will have to be prepared to walk in space to repair the Spektr module.

Usually only two of the three crew members need to be equipped for space- walking. Mir was built by the Russians, to Russian specifications, and anyone who steps or floats outside has to wear a Russian "Orlan" spacesuit that will connect with the Mir technology.

Unfortunately for Ms Lawrence, Russian spacesuits come in a one-size- fits-all (Russians). She would have been floating inside the suit before she even stepped outside. So she had to cede her place.

That, at least, is the story told by the Americans. They said it was a Russian decision; but the Russians seemed confused last night, and claimed they hadn't been told. There was a lingering suspicion that Ms Lawrence was stood down from a prospectively dangerous journey for some other reason.

Ms Lawrence has had bad luck with Mir. She was initially rejected for the programme and, at her press conference, she managed to knock the model of Mir off the table - not the best omen.

Mary Dejevsky, Washington

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