MOSCOW, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
June 25, 1997
While practicing manual docking procedures, astronauts on the Russian Space Station Mir lost control of a Progress resupply ship early Wednesday. The ship then crashed into the space station, causing the cabins to depressurize and damage to the station's solar panels. Is the life of U.S. astronaut Michael Foale and the other occupants of Mir in danger? Elizabeth Farnsworth places that question and more to Frank Culbertson, NASA project manager for the Mir project.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As we reported earlier, a cargo ship crashed into the Russian space station Mir today, damaging one of its interlocking modules and forcing its three astronauts, including the American, Michael Foale, to seal off part of the ship. Mir has circled the Earth more than 64,000 times since its launching in 1986 and has been plagued with problems in recent years, including a fire in February, a failure of oxygen generators in March and a cooling system leak in April. Frank Culbertson, director of NASA's Mir program, is here to explain what happened today. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Culbertson.
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FRANK CULBERTSON, Director, NASA Mir Program: My pleasure, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you go through the sequence of what happened today when this cargo ship was docking?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Sure. As I understand it--and, in fact, we were briefed on it ahead of time--they were doing a test of a manual docking system for their Progress resupply vessel. They were bringing it in to the docking port. I have a model just next to me here that shows where the Progress would have re-docked. They had undocked it yesterday, and it stayed in the vicinity for 24 hours, and then they were bringing it back in. At some point during that approach they lost control of it. It was not--they were not able to break it sufficiently or control it sufficiently to continue a successful docking. In the course of doing that, it passed just beneath this port that you see here and impacted the solar array on the Spektr module, which is one of the laboratories attached to the node at the end of the base block. It also impacted a radiator here and then passed through the arrays and went on passed the station and now is safely well away from it and back under control by Mission Control Center in Moscow. It was being controlled by the commander on board at that time via a video system, and he was looking through the camera at the target.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Just so I get this clear, the cargo ship had come and docked, got something, and this was a test the next day, and this was a manual docking. They were testing a system, is that right, or were they working it manually at this point?
FRANK CULBERTSON: That's right. It actually had come up in April and brought a number of supplies and logistics up to the Mir. They undocked it yesterday, and then the plan was to re-dock it using the manual system, which is more fuel-efficient in theory, and then bring it back into the docking port for a couple of days. And then Friday they were going to launch a new Progress vehicle, undock this one for the final time, and de-orbit into the Earth. It didn't really contain anything of value to the station at this point, so the loss of it or the lack of docking in itself is not a loss to the crew on board.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. So what happened? The crew felt--according to reports--felt air pressure weaken, is that right, and then what happened?
FRANK CULBERTSON: That's right. Sometime during the impact a leak opened up in the Spektr module, and it began--the pressure began dropping in the station. The crew recognized that it was in this module, so they disconnected what other wires or cables they had going through that hatch and closed the hatch on that module, which isolated the leak, and then allowed them to remain at a fairly nominal pressure in the rest of the station; however, the Spektr module, itself, did leak down to a vacuum during that time. It was no longer accessible by the crew.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So it's kind of like a ship where they sealed off a place where there is a leak, and the rest of the ship is okay?
FRANK CULBERTSON: That's basically it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's happening?
FRANK CULBERTSON: It's like on a ship.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's happening in the rest of the ship? Is the power down? That's what we've heard.
FRANK CULBERTSON: That's right. Because the Spektr has four very new arrays on it, it was providing about half the power that the station does consume. The other arrays are mostly older, though there are a couple of new ones here, but they are not as large or as efficient as the ones on the Spektr. So that's a pretty significant loss to a station of that power generation capability. So they had to do it an orderly power-down where they shut down some of the systems. They also shut down the motion control system which they use momentum wheels to do efficient and easy control of the station. But they shut those down. At this time they will take the station and point it in the most efficient sun-gathering attitude, and so they can generate power to recharge their batteries and get back into--as much as they can--normal operations on the life support and motion control system.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How does it affect them individually, the lack of power? Do they have to move more slowly?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Not really. I mean, they probably will not exercise for a couple of days just to keep the metabolism rates down and the CO2 generation rates down. And they've got some of the thermal controls shut off. That, I don't believe, is a critical problem now. The main thing is that to not generate a lot of heat, or turn on a lot of electronic devices, and conserve power for the batteries until they are fully charged again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's lost in the module that's sealed off, what kind of experiments were being done there?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Well, it's actually about half the complement of American experiments on board, most of them in the life sciences disciplines, and there is no access to those right now, so they may be lost for the duration. In addition, that's where Mike Foale's living quarters were, and so some of his personal belongings and things such as that are in there, as well as some of the computers that he used for support. So we--we do see that as a loss and something we're evaluating now as to how we will handle that in the future and how we need to get more things up to him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there any talk about evacuating the space station?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Not really. I mean, that's always the action of last resort, but--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We should explain that--
FRANK CULBERTSON: --they could very well do that if they were not able to seal the leak; however, at this time things are stable and they will continue to work the problem until it becomes apparent that they can't, or that they are successful.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry. Explain how it would be evacuated.
FRANK CULBERTSON: Well, if they had to evacuate a station, they do have the Soyuz vehicle at this end of the station, which is still perfectly useable and ready to be manned, if necessary, and they can leave in a few minutes, if necessary, though it would normally be done--probably be done in an orderly fashion if a decision was made to do that. But it's available. It has spacesuits in it. It works on its own power, and is their normal means for returning to Earth in a normal, at the end of a normal flight.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Given all the problems, the fire which recently, I guess, in an interview, the American astronaut, Jerry Linenger, who was there, has reported that the fire in February was quite serious--given the fire and the other problems that the space station has had, is it just too risky for the astronauts there now, do you think?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Not at this particular time, and we always look at what risks are involved, and space flight is full of risks, most of which we manage fairly well. Fire and depressurization on a station are the two most serious problems we're concerned about, and unfortunately, we've experienced both of them this year on board the Mir. And who's to say, we might experience them in the future on ISS [International Space Station], and these are experiences that will serve us well in dealing with that, but there's no doubt the fire was a serious situation. There's no doubt that the depressurization is serious for the program on board the Mir, but the safety of the astronauts right now is not compromised, but we are looking at what we do in the future to make sure that they are able to continue operating.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Mir is eleven years old, and, as I understand, it was thought it would just be up there for five years. Is anything about this accident related to its age?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Well, in point of fact, the Mir was originally certified for five years. The Russians always do initial certification on their hardware and then continue operating it as it proves to be safe and they can re-certify it, which they have done with the Mir. I don't believe this particular incident was related to age at all. This could have happened the first week the Mir was up there, and it had to do with an operational test of a resupply vehicle, it struck one of the newest modules, the Spektr, and it could have happened at any time. The problem will be in how well the rest of the modules hold up during this time and are able to produce power and provide life support. And that's something that the Russians are evaluating very carefully and almost 24 hours a day right now until they get the answers to that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And they'll make that decision, an evacuation decision?
FRANK CULBERTSON: Well, we will work together on where we stand after a few days, when they have all the information available to them. It'll take a couple of days to do full recharge of the batteries and to assess what the capabilities are for the near-term.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Frank Culbertson, thanks for being with us.
FRANK CULBERTSON: Sure.