Spacemen trapped by rocketing prices

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

It will be one of those awkward long-distance phone calls that requires a certain degree of managerial skill: "Look, we know you will have been up there, orbiting around the earth on your own for four months. But you know what the budget's like. You are just going to have to stay there for a bit."

The Russian controllers of the Mir space station have yet to inform their three cosmonauts that they may well have to spend another 39 days floating around in space, allegedly because of difficulty over cash.

Officials said yesterday that funding problems have delayed the construction of a booster rocket which would have carried a replacement crew to the station, allowing Thomas Reiter, a German, and the Russians Yuri Gidzenko and Alexander Avdeyev to return to Earth after 130 days.

So, plans are under discussion to extend the mission of the men - up there since the beginning of September - by more than six weeks. It is unclear how the crew will take it, but the Russian Space Agency yesterday was looking on the bright side.

"They will have enough food, water and air, since the Progress cargo ship that docked with the Mir [on Wednesday] brought more than enough supplies," said Anatoly Tkachev, after explaining that the construction of a Progress booster for the Soyuz-22 spacecraft is taking longer than planned because the production plant lacks funding.

"We are going to tell them quite soon, and I am sure they will be pleased about it,'' Mr Tkachev said. "All cosmonauts, like pilots, like to fly. They are all in good physical shape, especially Reiter, and they'll have time for more research.''

The new Soyuz rocket, which will put up a Soyuz TM-23 capsule carrying two relief cosmonauts, Yuri Onufriyenko and Yuri Usachev, will not be ready until 21 February.

The mission, part of the international effort Europeace '95, consists of biological, geophysical and technological experiments. Mr Reiter is due to take a spacewalk on 20 October, to install equipment outside the Mir. He will have time, by the sounds of it, for quite a long and leisurely stroll.

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