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Mir struggles with capricious computer

There have been many times when the British-born astronaut Michael Foale has appeared to be living in an Arthur C Clarke story, but rarely more so than yesterday. He and his Russian colleagues were compelled to shut down most of the Mir space station's systems because of what controllers called a "capricious" computer.

"Capricious" is not a word often used to describe space technology - unless, of course, referring to Hal, the megalomaniac fictional computer in 2001; A Space Odyssey. But, then, nor is "jinxed", although that is what Mir increasingly seems to be.

The breakdown was the third computer failure within three months, and is yet another addition to the station's litany of setbacks. These include a fire, a prang with a cargo ship, oxygen supply problems, and a Russian commander - now back on earth - who complained of a heart flutter.

However, a spokesman for Mission Control outside Moscow, said last night that the crew had managed to repair the computer. But he added that it still had to be restarted and the crew were likely to try and switch it back on after a radio exchange with ground control about 9am today.

Scientists were yesterday at a loss to say exactly why the computer abruptly turned itself off, after it declared an emergency and blacked out. "The computer has become capricious again," said Valery Lyndin, a Russian spokesman. The crew promptly closed down most vital systems - including the oxygen supply system and gyrodynes that keep Mir aligned to the sun - to save power while they searched for the fault.

Although the three crew on board are not considered by their controllers to be in any danger, computer failure is among the more serious of the 1,500 (mostly minor) breakdowns that Mir has experienced during its 11 years in space.

When a crew member unplugged the main computer by mistake in July, it sent Mir drifting into space for about a day while the crew groped around the darkness with torches. There were further problems last month, when a computer section crashed during a redocking manoeuvre. Yesterday Pavel Vinogradov, Mir's engineer, said that this time Mir was maintaining its position.

Last weekend, Mir's controllers had hoped to stem the tide of mishaps and bad publicity by announcing that they had found a hole in Spektr, the science module damaged when a cargo ship crashed into it in June. After a space walk that lasted nearly six hours, Dr Foale and Anatoly Sovolyov, the station commander, returned without having found a puncture.

Yesterday's events will inevitably contribute to Russia's increasingly defensive posture over Mir, as questions continue in the United States over whether the $472m that Nasa is paying Russia for the use of the station is money well spent.