Why Mir crew had to walk on the wild side

Click to follow
The restoration of power to the Mir space station yesterday was a major step back to full operation - but the harder task may lie ahead of the three-man crew, who are having a well-earned rest this weekend from repair duties.

No one had known what to expect when the cosmonauts opened the hatch door leading to the Spektr capsule, and some expected the worst - floating shards of broken glass, globs of blood from shattered lab experiments.

So there was more than a little tension in the air at Mission Control as the first reports crackled through the radio. "The module is working!" declared Pavel Vinogradov, whose every breath could be heard through his spacesuit microphone. "I can see some fans spinning, some pumps working. I can hear the sounds of a living module!"

"You are telling us some really great news," one of the ground controllers said. Then, amid laughter, he added, "The Russian equipment works even in a vacuum!"

That broke the tension and, perhaps, Mir's remarkable string of bad luck. Since February, the space station has endured a fire, power cuts, oxygen system breakdowns and the collision, and Russian space officials heard calls from around the world for the aging station to be retired.

After yesterday's repair job, the Mir Mission Chief Vladimir Solovyov was asked if he thought the successful mission would improve Mir's international image. "I don't care what the world is going to think," he replied.

The repair job will allow the rest of Mir to be reconnected to the Spektr's four solar panels. But the biggest problem, which has yet to be tackled, will be to fix the hole in the Spektr module, caused on 25 June when a Progress supply ship crashed slowly but unstoppably into it. Repairing that hole, which still renders Spektr unusable, will involve an outside spacewalk and a patching job that has never actually been attempted on a working spacecraft.

Fixing holes in spacecraft is not a task that anyone undertakes lightly: if the seal is not perfect then it could fail catastrophically, and cause a repeat of the desperate five-minute scramble to seal off the module that led to power cables being cut off last time.

Nor have there been any occasions when such a fix has been required. Previously, collisions in space have either been minor - such as an orbiting paint speck which dented but did not puncture a Space Shuttle window some years ago - or total, as happened last year when a telecommunications satellite abruptly stopped working-- almost certainly due to being hit by "space junk".

However, if the hole can be fixed, using a combination of high-tech glues and simple patching, then Spektr will come back into its own as the only permanent floating laboratory presently available in space.

Companies and governments in the United States, Europe and Japan are all prepared to pay handsomely for science experiments to be performed in the exceptional conditions of space.

That is an important money-earner for Russia. Although President Boris Yeltsin yesterday pledged that the 1998 Russian budget would provide more money for space and aviation, implicitly slapping down the comments of a treasury minister earlier in the week that "Mir should be left to burn up", it has to earn its keep and that means getting back into Spektr and starting the experiments going again - British born crew member Michael Foale had to abandon them abruptly when the air started hissing out of his module.

Restoring the power from the solar panels on Spektr, the newest of the six modules that comprise Mir, will boost the energy available up to 90 per cent of its maximum, and should end the repeated problems which have seen the space station losing its gyroscopic orientation and spinning chaotically through its orbit, losing extra power because its panels are not oriented correctly to pick up the sunlight.

Exactly when the leak can be repaired is still a matter for debate, however. Yesterday's mission did not find it at once, which is why the external spacewalk is necessary.