Mir is bedevilled by a dose of the wrong stuff

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The Independent Online
You do not have to be a rocket scientist (although its owners could do with a few good ones) to notice there is something strange about the drama being played out in the Mir space station. It's the commander. Which planet is he on, so to speak?

Should this man really be in charge of the tons of technology hurtling round the planet at 18,000mph, which will one day crash earthwards - probably sooner rather than later?

Popular culture expects people in charge of space craft to conform to certain stereotypes. They should have the emotions of a mobile phone, the reactions of a Pentium chip and the ability to respond to every situation, however perilous, with the remarks "Roger" and "Over".

We recall Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the moon and said, with all the drama of the speaking clock, that he had taken a giant leap for mankind. We see Spock in Star Trek and hear Hal the caustic but witty computer in 2001: a Space Odyssey.

But Vasily Tsibliyev, the 43-year-old Russian in charge of Mir, is different. Ground controllers did not have to persuade Spock to eat properly, or to remind the pointy-eared Vulcan to take his sedatives. Nor is there any record of a senior official in Houston ending a ground-to-space conversation with Armstrong by blurting: "It's a kindergarten up there!" - as the Russian mission director did after talking to Mir last Thursday.

All week the commander has been showing the symptoms of a man who is at best neurotic and, at worst, grappling with stress and exhaustion. This may not be surprising, given the disasters that have punctuated his tour of duty, from a serious fire in February, to crashing an unmanned supply drone into the Spektr scientific lab, punching a hole in its wall - a mistake for which Moscow reportedly holds him responsible. Add the various leaks and breakdowns, and the knowledge that every error is reported round the planet 250 miles below, and you have a man under pressure.

Tsibliyev might have turned out a different animal altogether had he had the phlegmatic, endlessly resourceful Captain Kirk as his role model. He might also have benefited from some time spent in the Boy Scouts, almost a prerequisite for US astronauts.

An Nasa document records that of 233 astronauts to have gone through the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, 145 have been in the scouts. Indeed, Neil Armstrong achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest obtainable.

Such experience helps prepare the would-be astronauts for the psychological evaluations they must endure in training. One of the toughest is the claustrophobia test, which consists of zipping the aspirant astronaut in an inflatable plastic ball a yard in diameter for an hour, or until he begs to be released. Trainee astronauts also carry out impossible tasks to measure stress and perseverance and, finally, humility when they are beaten.

The hapless Tsibliyev appears, however, to have been stroppy from the word go. "We have been hearing his complaints of the workload being too heavy since the very first day of his flight," Viktor Blagov, a senior official, told reporters at Mission Control, outside Moscow. "Maybe he can't work as fast as we urge him to." You'd never hear that about Spock.

Last week, as everyone knows,Tsibliyev was bumped off the space walk into the punctured Spektr because he was suffering an irregular heartbeat. Somewhat humiliatingly, he was given drugs and told to rest. Nor was that all. He was also taking sedatives for insomnia, and appears to need hectoring by his doctors. On Friday one was heard pleading with him to eat regularly and to make sure he got some sleep. A good patient he is not.

We don't know who pulled the computer plug that forced a power cut and sent Mir drifting off into space on Thursday night with its lights off. Let us hope it was not the commander of this jinxed flying machine.

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