Accident Clouds U.S. Future on Mir

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The gash ripped in the Mir space station yesterday may deflate more than just the science module that served as living quarters and laboratory for U.S. astronauts: A delicate U.S.-Russian collaboration on research aboard Mir itself is in trouble. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling on NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to cancel plans for further long-term stays by astronauts on Mir until the agency certifies that the station meets or exceeds U.S. safety standards.

The House of Representatives already has passed the 1998 NASA authorization bill which calls for such certification, but the Senate has not yet taken up its version of the bill. The measure was the brainchild of Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who chairs the House Science Committee and has been a relentless critic of U.S. cooperation with Russia in space. Sensenbrenner's concerns have been fed by Russia's slow pace in funding its portion of the international space station--the first module of which is slated for launch in just 1 year--as well as a fire and assorted other technical problems aboard the 11-year-old Mir.

"I, for one, can no longer sit idly by as mishap after mishap occur while we continue to plan the next shuttle mission to Mir hoping for, but not really expecting, the mission will succeed without a potentially life-threatening situation," Sensenbrenner said hours after the accident, in which a Russian cargo module, remotely guided by a Mir cosmonaut, rammed into the Spektr science module. U.S. astronaut Mike Foale narrowly escaped from Spektr as its air escaped into space. Sensenbrenner demanded that Goldin immediately launch a review of Mir safety, and complete it before the next U.S. crew arrives at the station in September to relieve Foale. Sensenbrenner told the NASA chief yesterday that he wants the agency to abide by the certification measure, even though it is not yet law.

If NASA concludes that safety standards are not up to par on Mir and forbids U.S. astronauts from working on the station, it would end what Administration officials say is a critical effort to conduct a host of experiments--from biological and materials science to engineering studies--in preparation for the international station. The current mission is the sixth planned U.S. visit of nine scheduled. For now, however, Foale will have little science to conduct. Most of the U.S. equipment is in Spektr, which is sealed off until cosmonauts can patch the hole and repressurize the chamber. Even then, it is not clear whether the equipment--much of which involves testing microgravity's effects on people--is still in working order after being exposed to the vacuum and cold of space. The module, which was attached to Mir in 1995, also contains Russian geophysical and remote-sensing equipment.

Posted in Space, Physics