Astronauts face up to abandoning Mir

If the astronauts on board the Mir space station have had any time to reflect in the past three weeks, they might reassure themselves that this is not, yet, the worst disaster in space.

That unfortunate title belongs to the Challenger Space Shuttle, which blew up 73 seconds after its launch on 28 January 1986, killing the seven astronauts aboard. (Three US astronauts also died before leaving the ground, when the Apollo 1 module caught fire 10 minutes before it was due to take off on 27 January 1967.)

Nor, despite the darkness and cold, are the three men in the most remote location for a disaster; that dubious title goes to the occupants of Apollo 13, who were 200,000 miles from Earth on 13 April, 1970 when they radioed Houston to tell mission control, famously, "We've got a problem." By contrast, Mir is about 250 miles above the Earth.

And it has to be said that this is not the first time that things have looked desperate to occupants of Mir. In May 1990, two cosmonauts were reported "stranded" there by damage to their descent module; at least today's occupants have the Soyuz module as a lifeboat back to Earth. The 1990 problem was solved when an unmanned craft was sent out with a ladder to enable the men to carry out external repairs.

However, this is the longest-running crisis in space, and the exhaustion created among the crew means that the slightest error could be fatal. Although the name of the space station means "peace" in Russian, there has been very little of it for the three-man crew in the three weeks since a practice docking manoeuvre went wrong on June 25, causing the first space collision with a crewed spacecraft. The first 20 minutes after the accident were a terrifying scramble, as British-born Michael Foale, aged 40, heard the hiss of escaping air in the Spektr module where he lived and worked, and had to abandon it at top speed, helped by the captain, Vasili Tsibliyev, 43, and the flight engineer, Alexander Lazutkin, 39.

The blame for the original accident has not yet been placed, but Russian mission control is understood to feel that Commander Tsibliyev was at fault for having used an overloaded cargo module to practice the docking.

Since then, Commander Tsibliyev has developed a heart problem that ground- based doctors suggest is almost certainly stress-related. If the repair mission goes ahead, it has been decided that he will wait in the Soyuz escape craft, while Mr Foale undertakes the dangerous task of going into the darkened Spektr module, where he will have to reconnect the cables that were unhitched.

However, that spacewalk is now planned to occur on the night of July 24-25, and is still being rehearsed in swimming tanks (to reproduce weightlessness) on the ground by Russian technicians at Star City. The latest problems - which occurred when one of the crew accidentally pulled out a cable connecting to the main computer, oxygen generators and power systems - plunged the station to the bare minimum of power needed to keep running.

Mir was first launched on February 20 1986, intended to be a staging post for crewed flights to Mars "by the late 1990s". Instead, it suffered its first setback in April, 1987, when the Kvant astronomy module failed to dock as planned, necessitating a spacewalk to fix the problem.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before