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Close Call, Comrades

3 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

For a few tense days last week, the prestige of the Russian space program — and the well-being of three cosmonauts — was in jeopardy as a planned rendezvous in orbit went suddenly awry. A Progress rocket laden with food and other vital supplies glided up to — and right past — the Mir space station. Ground controllers then made a second effort to dock the two craft, but failed. By late Friday afternoon, the Progress could make only one last pass; this time cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko would try to maneuver Mir into a favorable position. Finally, with no more room for error, Malenchenko hit his target and the ships linked up.

Ordinarily, a few miscues with a resupply ship would not create such suspense. But a series of foul-ups had left the space station in a precarious state. A resupply mission scheduled for late July had to be canceled for lack of a rocket. And while a previous mission arrived without a hitch, the edibles had mostly disappeared — looted, say insiders, by underpaid, overworked ground-support technicians.

That made the situation aboard Mir unsettling, to say the least. Cosmonauts Malenchenko, Valeri Poliakov and Talgat Musabayev have been subsisting on supplies left over from earlier missions, including food two years past its expiration date. They’ve had to drink water recycled from their breath and sweat.

If last week’s docking had failed, the cosmonauts would have had to cut , short their stay, returning to earth in an emergency re-entry vehicle stored on the Mir. That would have meant leaving the station unmanned for the first time in five years and abandoning a planned record-setting 427-day tour in space by Poliakov.

Though the mission was saved, Mir’s brush with disaster fanned doubts about the fitness of Russia’s space program. That is of no small concern to the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, which have formed a partnership with Russia to build a new space station. In the first phase of the venture, the Europeans are scheduled to put an astronaut on Mir in October, and an American is supposed to go aboard next year.

The Russians insist Mir is in good shape, but they cannot say the same for the workers at the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan. According to a report on Moscow TV, the workers’ housing is deteriorating, crime is on the rise, and schools and hospitals are closing down. Under such conditions, observes James Oberg, an author and expert on the Russian space program, “skills get diluted, motivation disappears, attention wanders.”

The U.S. is buying Moscow’s line for now: things could be better, but the Right Stuff will prevail. Says astronaut Robert (“Hoot”) Gibson, who is scheduled to pilot the space shuttle Atlantis to a first ever rendezvous with Mir next May: “Conditions over there are more difficult than they were. But we’re making it work, and we need to.” Gibson will be visiting Baikonur beginning this week. It will be interesting to see if he feels the same way on his return to the U.S.

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