Long before it became a kind of "This Old House" in orbit, the space station Mir was meant to serve as a test of Russian-American scientific cooperation.
That's why US officials are becoming increasingly concerned about an apparently unending stream of Mir problems. They're worried that the glitches are evidence of systemic faults within Russia's aerospace industry - faults that might affect the future of a major international operation, the effort to build space station Alpha.
Experts say the underfunded Russian space industry can't supply all the maintenance, training, spare parts, and new hardware needed for an efficient program. James Oberg, a Houston-based analyst of the Russian space program, notes that mishaps in space are to be expected when a program is striving to develop new capabilities. But he says the "Mir accidents are not happening because they're pushing for higher goals. They're happening because the ceiling is collapsing on them."
Former Mir commander Vasily Tsibilyev expressed similar concern. When he returned to Earth last week, he rejected criticism that he and flight engineer Alexander Lazutkin were mainly responsible for Mir's series of problems.
The primary reason for many of the failures is the fact that "it's impossible to procure many things which are vital for the station," he said.
It is this underlying weakness of the Russian space program that has long concerned critics of the Russian-American space station partnership. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials have repeatedly countered by insisting that they will learn how to make that partnership work partly through joint exercises on Mir. That is why they have designated American participation on Mir "Phase One" of the space station Alpha program.
John Logsdon, who heads the space policy center at George Washington University in Washington, agrees that this Phase One effort has "strengthened relations" between the Russian and American space programs. He adds that "at the operating level" it has reinforced "the need to cooperate." Yet he also points out there still is much to learn to make the Russian-US space partnership work.
NASA currently has three separate inquiries going on looking at safety aboard the space station. They will be reviewed before the US decides to send up astronaut David Wolf to Mir in September. He is scheduled to take over from astronaut Michael Foale, who is part of the three-man crew aboard Mir.
At press time Wednesday, Mir commander Anatoly Solovyov, flight engineer Pavel Vinogradov, and Mr. Michael Foale were checking out the station's operation after recovering from the failure of its main computer earlier in the week. The cosmonauts were preparing for a spacewalk Friday to open access to Mir's Spektr module. The module was damaged when a Progress robot freighter spacecraft crashed into Mir during a botched attempt to dock with the station June 25.
The cosmonauts hope to reconnect power cables that will bring Spektr's solar panels back on line. Mir lost 40 to 50 percent of its power when those panels were cut off. The cosmonauts may be able to recover at least part of that loss.
The cosmonauts will be working in bulky space suits in a narrow, airless cavity. Russia's deputy mission control chief Viktor Blagov has described that as dangerous work "such [as] has never been done in the history of space exploration." Foale will stand by in the Soyuz spacecraft during the operation. He will be prepared for his companions to join him for a quick getaway should the operation fail and endanger Mir.
THIS is all part of the learning experience NASA says it is getting from its participation in Mir. Mr. Oberg agrees that NASA is gaining valuable experience. But he also notes that the Russians have had a great deal of experience that does not include NASA participation.
He says his analysis of the Russian program indicates that it has had failures that Moscow has not fully shared with NASA. He says he thinks this is partly because of a penchant for Russian agencies to keep things to themselves and partly a Russian tendency not to document failures as thoroughly as NASA does. If Americans talk face-to-face with Russians who were involved in past incidents, they often learn more than is in the written record, Oberg says.
Asked about this, NASA spokesman Mike Braukus said that as far as he knows "the Russians have been very cooperative with us. ... They have been very open." In any event, he added, each Mir mission involving an American astronaut is reviewed by three panels.
As for weaknesses in the Russian aerospace industry, Mr. Braukus says NASA has recognized there might be problems down the line in building space station Alpha. He explained that the agency has contingency plans to carry on space station construction without Russian help.
But that help is needed. Russia is responsible for several key station modules, including the first two. Also, when station construction begins next June, both the Soyuz personnel carriers and the Progress robot freighters will be as vital to the work as will the US space shuttle. Among other services, a Soyez will provide an escape vehicle for the three-person crews that will run the station during construction. The station also will rely on Progress freighters for fuel and supplies.