Walk in space by Briton fails to locate puncture on Mir station

The first Briton to walk in space, Michael Foale, yesterday spent more than five hours floating outside the Mir station in search of a hole in its hull caused by a collision with a supply vessel in June, writes Phil Reeves in Moscow.

The 40-year-old cosmonaut clambered back into the laboratory with his Russian colleague, Anatoly Solovyov, after failing to find the puncture, which caused the hasty evacuation of the space laboratory's Spektr module in the worst setback in its chequered 11-year history. It was the second space walk by the Nasa astrophysicist, who was born in Lincoln and educated at Cambridge. His first was in 1995, from the space shuttle Discovery.

Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian flight director, described yesterday's sortie as "long and difficult". Although there was evident disappointment that the two men were unable to find the puncture, Nasa and Russian Mission Control stressed that their walk accomplished several other important goals - notably, realigning two solar power panels to the sun, and examining the damaged base of a solar array, a suspected source of a leak.

Mr Foale and Mr Solovyov, Mir's commander and the world's most experienced spacewalker, floated out of Mir's hatch just before 0100 GMT for a sortie in temperatures that veered from several hundred degrees - when in sunlight - to minus 100, in darkness.

After negotiating their way to the opposite side of the station on a boom, they spent more than 90 minutes cutting through the craft's thick thermal exterior blanketing in search of crash damage. Short of time, they dropped several tasks but did pause to marvel at the sight of Rio de Janeiro, several hundred miles below them, during one of their four orbits around the globe during the mission.

Ground controllers in Moscow and Houston were yesterday clearly relieved that the mission, which lasted just under six hours, had passed without any serious mishaps - a tear in a space suit from sharp objects could have been fatal.

A Nasa spokesman said yesterday's walk, the first visual inspection of Mir's hull since the crash, was likely to be the "first of an on-going series of space walks that involve looking at various areas".