MIRED IN MISHAPS
JULY 17, 1997
The Russian space station, MIR, has had a series of problems in past weeks. Most recently, an important cable was accidentally disconnected, leaving the craft in free drift and complete darkness overnight. Jim Lehrer talks to former astronauts about the troubled past and uncertain future of the manned space station.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL, ITN: It was in the early hours of this morning while two of the crew slept that one of the cosmonauts on board--ground control aren't saying which one--accidentally pulled a cable, sending the station into a spin, causing it to lose power and forcing them to close down almost all systems.
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The three-man crew were already in difficulty. They lost much of their power after collision last month. The accident happened while Mir was out of contact with ground control in Moscow. Technicians worked frantically to compensate for the loss in power suggesting moves to enable the station to keep operating. NASA officials in the United States described how the cosmonauts worked to adjust the orbit manually.
SPOKESMAN: The Mir went into a free drift, and then the power, which, as you know, has limited margins right now, was reduced to the point where they had to shut down the gyrodynes, go into jet control, and then eventually had to go back to controlling with the Soyuz module, as they did about three weeks ago when a similar event happened.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: In Moscow, Mission Controller Vladimir Solovyov dismissed the suggestion that the situation warranted abandoning the space station. But the accident couldn't have come at a worse time. When the cargo ship collided with Mir last month, the crew had to scramble to cut power cables to the space station's solar panels, but they sealed off the punctured Specter module. In the next few days they were due to enter the module and repair the damage with spare parts sent out to them last week. But that plan was put off when the Russian commander fell ill with a heart complaint. Experts here say what should have been a routine operation to restore power lost last night was complicated by what is now a catalogue of errors.
SPOKESMAN: Many, many different factors have coincided. All the crews are very tense. It happens deep at night, early in the morning, 5:30. You know, they lost orientation immediately. All the red flashes, emergency ones, flashing all around, they woke up. Beside this, they were out of range of communication with Russian Mission Control.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: Tonight, the crew have successfully stabilized the situation. Mir is no longer spinning in space, but the station is in such bad shape that crews are spending more and more time repairing it, rather than carrying out the experiment they were sent up for, which international agencies pay for, keeping the Russian space program in orbit.
JIM LEHRER: With us now, NASA astronaut Jerry Ross, who has completed five shuttle missions, walked in space four times, and retired astronaut Norman Thagard, who spent almost four months aboard Mir in 1995. He now teaches in the college of engineering at Florida State University. Mr. Ross, the crisis is over for now?
JERRY ROSS, NASA Astronaut: (Houston) I believe so, Jim. It sounds like they got things under control again. They're starting to recharge the power in the batteries, and over the next couple of days. They should be back to where they started before they inadvertently disconnected the cable.
JIM LEHRER: Inadvertently disconnected. I mean, somebody just pulled out a cable they shouldn't have done. Is that what happened?
JERRY ROSS: That's my understanding of it. It was a cable that was providing data to the computer on board the station that then provided the attitude pointing information to the station to properly adjust the solar rays to properly power the batteries and the systems on the station.
JIM LEHRER: And then it took a while to figure out what had happened. Is that why they couldn't just plug it right back in?
JERRY ROSS: Well, it's my understanding that this is an off nominal signature to the computer.
JIM LEHRER: What is--I'm sorry--
JERRY ROSS: And it automatically popped off--
JIM LEHRER: What's an off nominal?
JERRY ROSS: --because it didn't recognize a system.
JIM LEHRER: An off nominal signature. I'm sorry. What does that mean exactly?
JERRY ROSS: Well, I'm not really sure. My understanding is that this was not a failure mode that had been anticipated, and the loss of this data to the computer caused it to go into a default state, which caused it to shut itself off and to kind of safe a system in a way.
JIM LEHRER: Is there--do you agree with some of the commentaries that have come out in the last 24 hours that maybe this--these three men are under so much stress that that's what caused one of them to jerk that cord out?
JERRY ROSS: Certainly that's a possibility. They've been up there for a long time, especially the two Russians. And they've had a series of incidents that has put a lot of stress on them. I think the indication that the commander is having some irregular heartbeats is probably another indication that they are under a series of incidents that's causing stress to them.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Thagard, tell us what it means when we--when we hear that this thing was spinning in space. That sounds scary. Is it? Mr. Thagard?
NORMAN THAGARD, Former Mir Astronaut: (Tallahassee) I don't think that the spacecraft losing attitude control and going into free drift is particularly scary. And by the way, this is not the first time that Mir has had a power failure. That happened in October or November of 1994 too.
JIM LEHRER: But what's it like if something--what does it means--when they say free drift, explain that to us.
NORMAN THAGARD: Free drift means it adapts whatever attitude it wants to by virtue of any rates that it had when it quit controlling the attitude by virtue of a small amount of atmosphere that's up there. It will start then changing its attitude in some unpredictable fashion.
JIM LEHRER: So, I mean, it's just like if you threw anything into space. I mean, there's no control. Nobody was controlling the space station while it was in free drift. That's what that means, right?
NORMAN THAGARD: That's what that means. It was just adapting whatever attitude the environment was sending it into.
JIM LEHRER: Now, why isn't that scary, Mr. Thagard? It would be to the rest of us.
NORMAN THAGARD: Well, it wouldn't be. You might not even notice it, depending on the rates.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
NORMAN THAGARD: The only way you would notice it is if you looked outside and noticed that, for instance, in the daylight the solar batteries weren't pointed at the sun anymore.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the stress idea that maybe these three men have had it?
NORMAN THAGARD: Well, I think that's somewhat overplayed, especially in the case of the flight engineer and Mike Foale. I really doubt that they're under that much psychological stress. The commander, who was piloting the Progress when it hit the array, and I'm sure that weighs heavily on his mind, and I'm sure now too he's disappointed that he can't perform the space walk, so he's probably under some stress. But I don't even think the arrhythmia that he's having is related to that necessarily.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ross, the space walk, you've made five of them, right?
JERRY ROSS: Four so far, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Four so far. Mr. Culbertson, your colleague at NASA said today--we ran the tape in our News Summary a while ago--that that's the most exciting thing in the world. That's what all astronauts want to do. Do you agree with that?
JERRY ROSS: Yes, sir, I do. Beyond flying in space, being able to go outside in your own little spaceship--your spacesuit and to conduct a space walk is a very memorable and thrilling experience.
JIM LEHRER: So if Michael Foale says he wants to do it, that's understandable, from your point of view, right?
JERRY ROSS: Absolutely. Michael's a team player, and he wants to do what he can to keep the Mir station afloat and also to experience as many different things as he can while he's there.
JIM LEHRER: Now, this has been labeled a "risky," a potentially risky space walk if Foale does this. Why--what are the risks?
JERRY ROSS: Well, I guess the biggest risk would be going into the Specter module and finding something that was not anticipated. So far, everybody who has looked at that thinks that there are no significant hazards waiting for people once they open the hatch and go inside. They've done this type of space walk before. Every time they add another module to the station, they have to do something that's very similar to what they'll be doing this time. Mike--it is my understanding--will be staying inside the node and be in a supporting role for the board engineer, and, therefore, he ought to be in a minimal risk in that manner.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Thagard, you would agree, minimal risk if Foale does this space walk?
NORMAN THAGARD: I absolutely agree with that, and two of those space walks were performed while I was up there inside that node, so I think, in fact, that's probably less hazardous, in general, than doing one in which you go outside the spacecraft.
JIM LEHRER: Explain what he will actually do then. It's not an outside--he's not going to be out there outside in space. He's going to be in--he's going to be inside the whole time, right?
NORMAN THAGARD: Absolutely. And Mike Foale will probably not leave that node, which, by the way, was the airlock for the Mir station when it was first launched in 1986.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. So that you don't see any risks at all for him?
NORMAN THAGARD: Oh, there's always a risk, and Jerry can comment on that, when you get in your space suit and do an EVA, you go down to vacuum, because there's only you and that cloth suit between--between you and the vacuum of space--but it's not a particularly hazardous space walk.
JIM LEHRER: Would you agree with Mr. Ross, that this is an exciting thing to do; this is what astronauts were born to do?
NORMAN THAGARD: You can believe that. If I had an opportunity to do a space walk, I would have leapt at it.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
NORMAN THAGARD: Just because it's a different experience. You're in--as Jerry said--your own little spaceship, and you have a great view. It's just--you want to do something that's unique and different.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Mr. Ross, on the spacesuit, there have been some reports here that Foale doesn't have his own spacesuit up there, the space walk suit, because he didn't go up there to do a space walk. He's going to borrow one from one of the Russians, and it may not fit right. Is that a problem, and, if so, what is it?
JERRY ROSS: I don't think it will be a problem, Jim. Their suits are designed to be resizable on orbit. Mike has done considerable training in the suit. He's been in a vacuum chamber. He's experienced what the suit looks like and feels like when it's in an actual vacuum, of what it would be like in space. And I think he'll have a chance to do a couple of rehearsals, one in a shirt-sleeve environment, and then a second one where he'll actually be in the spacesuit, and he'll go through all the procedures, except taking the node down to a vacuum and actually opening up the hatch that that leads into the Specter compartment.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Thagard, you're one of the few real eyewitnesses there are to what it's like to be on Mir. What's causing all these problems? What's wrong with that thing up there?
NORMAN THAGARD: It doesn't look like the past couple of problems are related certainly to the age of the Mir station. It looks like--
JIM LEHRER: It's 11 years old, right? Hasn't it been up there--
NORMAN THAGARD: Well, parts of it, but parts of it are brand new. The Free Rotor module, for instance, didn't go up there till last year, and I was there when the Specter module came up two years ago.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. As you--I know you're not up there now, but you know what that instrument, that craft is like. When you read these reports and hear all these reports, what do you think is going on? What's causing that? Is there one cause, or what?
NORMAN THAGARD: The last couple of problems appear to be at least, in part, human error, and I think that there is a potential problem with long duration space flight in that one. When you've had a spacecraft up there for years and crews up there for months, you just don't pay the same attention to things that you would say on a shuttle flight of a week or two. That's just human nature. And what it means is people have to go back to the basics. They have to remember that you've always got to be vigilant. You've got to be meticulous in your adherence to procedures. And I think if they'll just do that, then they will cease to have a lot of these problems.
JIM LEHRER: And that's what could have caused an astronaut or cosmonaut to accidentally pull out that cable, you mean, just not paying enough attention to the details?
NORMAN THAGARD: Well, either that, or the cosmonaut had a wrong instruction. It's hard to know, but it does appear that human error played a role.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of these reports, Mr. Thagard, about, hey, maybe it's just time to close the door on that thing and let it go away, bring everybody home and wait for another space station to be built?
NORMAN THAGARD: I guess I would say this. Those folks are a lot safer up there on the Mir station than they would be riding the rocket to take them up there, and I haven't heard anyone argue that we ought to quit firing rockets off.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ross, what's your view of closing down shop?
JERRY ROSS: Well, I'd have to agree with Norm. I think that right now the Mir is crippled. We're not getting as much science out of it as we would like to, but we are learning a lot. A major portion of the first phase of cooperation with the Russians and the international space station is to understand how they do business and how their systems work and going through this series of problems that we've had, we've certainly learned a lot more than if everything had gone normally.
JIM LEHRER: Is this cooperation thing really working, Mr. Ross?
JERRY ROSS: I believe it is. It's certainly a growing process. We're separated by large distance. We used to be enemies. We have language difficulties, trying to understand each other's way of doing business in a technical sense. But I think for the future of mankind and exploring space, we need to do that in a larger group. Certainly, no one country has all the resources that are required, nor all the smarts that are necessary to press beyond low Earth orbit. And I think in the future we're laying the framework here that will be useful for the future of exploration of space.
JIM LEHRER: Norm Thagard, how would you rate the cooperation level between the Russians and the Americans?
NORMAN THAGARD: I'd rate it very good. And what I noticed during my flight as the flight went along, the Russians seemed to trust me more and more and give me more responsibility. And you can't get that unless you actually have interaction with one another.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us tonight.