Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

"Terror in Space"

PBS Airdate: October 27, 1998
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: During the following program, look for NOVA's Web markers which lead you to more information at our Web site. Tonight on NOVA, two hundred fifty miles above earth disaster strikes the Russian Space Station.

______: I could see a very large flame, smoke billowing out. I knew we had been hit. I was totally ignorant of what they were doing. No one at NASA knew what the men were doing.

NARRATOR: Four men survive to tell the truth about Mir "Terror In Space."

SPONSOR: Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation. Dedicated to education and quality education.

SPONSOR: This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company, Northwestern Mutual Life?

SPONSOR: And by Iomega, makers of personal storage solutions for your computer, so you can create more, share more, save more, and do more of whatever it is you do. Iomega. Because it's your stuff.

SPONSOR: And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Nearly two hundred fifty miles above the Earth's surface is the Russian space station Mir. Mir is one of the oldest spacecraft still in use and Russians have been living there for over a decade. In 1995, NASA began sending American astronauts to Mir to work side by side with Russian cosmonauts. But, one recent mission a series of disasters struck Mir jeopardizing that collaboration and the lives of Americans and Russians on board.

COSMONAUT: I would not go back again I've done it. I'm done. Got out of it alive.

NARRATOR: What will be remembered as one of the most terrifying chapters in the history of space flight began with high hopes. In February 1997, two Russian cosmonauts were departing for a routine tour of duty on Mir.

LINENGER: If I could give you a little tour of Mir. I'm Jerry Linenger, of course, and I'm in the base block.

NARRATOR: They were joining American Astronaut Jerry Linenger who had been sent to Mir about a month earlier. Jerry's new commander would be Vasily Tsibliyez, who spent almost seven months on Mir on a previous mission.

TSIBLIYEZ: When I was a little boy of seven, I heard that Yuri Gargarin had gone into space, and I was immediately infected with the idea. It started off as an impossible dream.

NARRATOR: Engineer Sascha Lazutkin was visiting Mir for the first time.

LAZUTKIN: In kindergarten, I once jumped from a high wooden tower and someone called me Sascha the Cosmonaut and that was it for me. I don't remember ever dreaming of being anything else.

NARRATOR: Vassily and Sascha were the twenty-third Russian crew to fly on Mir. For luck Vassily had taken his daughter's pink plastic rabbit with him. And, on this ill-fated mission, he would need all the luck he could get. Travelling about 18 thousand miles an hour around the Earth, it takes two days to catch up with Mir. Vassily and Sascha were replacing two other cosmonauts. Jerry Linninger still had another three months on Mir.

LINENGER: Just a good feeling to know other people are coming on board. Ah, the same two faces you start looking forward to some visitors. We opened the hatch; it was very joyous. We were very glad to see each other. I guess I had a sense that I was doing something good for the country. I was a U.S. Navy officer and I always felt a sense of duty and patriotism. I think I was about 14 when I saw the Moon landings and I said, "Man, I'd like to do that someday." You get lucky sometimes.

NARRATOR: Vassily's previous tour on Mir meant he quickly adapted to living in space. Sascha was not so fortunate.

LAZUTKIN: I was absolutely amazed when he started to do somersaults in front of us. As far as I was concerned, to hell with this weightlessness. Me, I just felt sick.

NARRATOR: Mir is a complex feat of engineering. It is actually seven individual modules launched separately and docked together to form one large space station. The first building block, the core module, was placed in orbit in 1986 and contains astronauts' living quarters and the station's controls. Then modules called Kvant 1 and Kvant 2 with scientific instruments and a shower were installed. In 1990, another scientific laboratory called Kristall was added. American astronauts usually live and work in the Spektr module, launched in 1995. Mir was completed with the addition of the Priroda module and a docking module for the space shuttle. Every few months supplies are sent up to Mir and trash is removed in unmanned cargo ships called Progress. Cosmonauts arrive and depart in Soluse capsules. Mir weighs over two hundred thousand pounds and is the size of half a dozen school buses stuck together. Designed to last 5 years, it has far exceeded its life expectancy, though not without developing some quirks.

LAZUTKIN: The station has become like a living creature. It really does have a life of its own. Things switch on, switch off, dials register, and so on.

LINENGER: I think I would describe Mir as a spider, and it has all these little legs sticking out in all different directions. It's sort of gangly looking thing. The joints don't all move properly, so it's splayed out in different directions. But, out in space it doesn't matter. You don't have to be aerodynamic or anything. You just kind of hang out in any shape you want to hang out in.

LAZUTKIN: I'm amazed that we managed to build such a station. I think it is practically perfect. Of course, there is surprise and pride for goodness sake let's call it pride that we can build such a complicated structure.

NARRATOR: But pride does not pay the bills. After the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russian space agency fell on hard times. The space shuttle they built as taxi to Mir flew only once before being cancelled.

LINENGER: Realistically, they had almost nothing after 1991. Their program spending was severely reduced. Their big dreams were all being put on hold. And the Mir station was being maintained, but barely, and they were not able to launch the new modules to it. So, I think it was an economic reality to them that they needed a partner, someone to work with, and with our space heritage and theirs combined, it made perfect sense.

NARRATOR: To raise cash, the Russians invited paying guests on board.

"This is a historic moment that I'm just very excited. Mr. Pokchev, I want to give you a hug." [applause]

NARRATOR: NASA paid Russia 400 million dollars to send its astronauts to Mir. Driving this deal was the new International Space Station, or ISS, now being built by the United States with the help of Russia, and other countries. ISS will be a 20-billion-dollar orbiting laboratory, more than five times the size of Mir. Astronauts from all over the world will live and work here for months at a time. To prepare for this high-stakes venture in space, NASA wanted to train its astronauts on Mir

"Commander at space station".....

NARRATOR: Jerry Linninger was the fourth U.S. astronaut to be sent to Mir. The crews are really there to study long-term endurance in space, but it's not all work. Shortly after Sascha and Vassily arrived the departing crew decided to hold a party.

TSIBLIYEZ: There was caviar, red caviar, which we brought along ourselves. We didn't get it in our rations. It's too expensive. But we treated ourselves. Let's just say it was a festive evening and all six of us were sitting around this table.

LINENGER: They bought some lemons, and it's just a the aroma is just wonderful. It kind of gets you in the heart when you smell the things of the Earth.

NARRATOR: With two crews onboard, oxygen was being used up more quickly than usual, so Sascha flew to another part of the station to turn on a supplemental oxygen canister.

LAZUTKIN: This is what it looks like when we receive it at the station. Here's the lid, and everything is sealed. We break the seal and the we open the lid and then we slide it into this generator. It reminds me of the Napoleonic war when they'd have to insert a cannonball into a cannon by hand. (laughter)

NARRATOR: This routine task would have unforseen consequences.

LINENGER: I looked down the passageway, and I could see a very large flame bursting out of the canister, smoke billowing out, and I knew we had a problem.

NARRATOR: Fire is a especially dangerous in a spacecraft. A leak had caused a chemical reaction in the oxygen canister and turned it into a giant blowtorch.

LINENGER: Molten metal was flying across splattering on the other bulkhead, which meant it was hot. The flame was at least this big—two, three feet directional. It had oxygen. It had fuel. It had everything it needed.

NARRATOR: The fire was also billowing dense black smoke, which was rapidly filling the module.

LAZUTKIN: When I saw the ship was full of smoke, my natural earthly reaction was to want to open a window. And then I was truly afraid for the first time. You're in such a small space that you can't escape from the smoke. You can't just open a window to ventilate the room.

LINENGER: I grabbed the respirator off the wall, activated it, took a breath, and I didn't get any oxygen. At that point, There was a lot of smoke. I took the mask off. Again, Earth instinct made me look low to try to find a clear spot where I could get a quick breath because I was getting very short of breath at that time. But, it was solid smoke. Smoke does not rise in space like it does on the ground. It's just everywhere. I went to the other respirator on the other wall. Opened it up. At that point, Vassily was there. He saw I was getting into trouble. He helped me get the thing out. I activated it again. Put it on. Breathed in, and luckily got oxygen at that point.

NARRATOR: The fire was blocking one of the two Soluse escape ships that were docked to Mir. Each ship could carry three men. If the fire couldn't be put out some of the crew would be left behind to die.

TSIBLIYEZ: The fire extinguisher functions in two ways, foam and water. When I started spraying foam on the hot canister, it didn't stick and had little effect, so I switched to water and started using that.

LINENGER: We went through two, three fire extinguishers and they really didn't do much to stop anything.

NARRATOR: But the water did keep the fire from spreading.

KORZUN: Jerry Linninger kept tugging my leg. "Valery, how do you feel? Are you alive"? I answered, "I'm alive, Jerry. everything's OK."

NARRATOR: After fourteen minutes, the fire burned itself out. The next morning, Jerry's NASA support team arrived at Russian mission control near Moscow with no idea that there had been a fire on Mir. The Russians had never informed them.

TONY: I noticed there was a lot of people down there and a lot of the life-support people that I work with. And, that really told me that something was wrong. And, the big ship flight directors were there, and the flight director was there, Zalovia. And he comes up to me, and says we have a problem. So, I said, "OK." so, I sit down there and I listen. I knew some Russian, and I pick up the word "fire." And I did a double take, and I turned to my interpreter and I said, "did they really have a fire?" He said, " yes, they really had a fire onboard, and everybody is OK."

LINENGER: Actually Tony sang for me, if I remember right, and It was about 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning or something like that, and it had happened about 12 hours before. And I remember mentally calculating; why didn't they call me in the afternoon when it happened when I was awake?

NARRATOR: Russian Mission Control hadn't informed the families of the crew either. The first Sascha Lazutkin's wife heard was on the radio.

MRS. LAZUTKIN: There were colleagues who also heard the news. They tried to be supportive and help me out of this state of shock I was in. They started telling me everything is OK. Why are you so pale? Everything is fine. Everybody's alive.

NARRATOR: Soon after the fire, the old crew departed. Smuggled in their luggage was a letter from Jerry to his wife.

MRS.LINENGER: That was the first thing I'd really heard from Jerry. I mean true, his real thoughts down on paper that no one could open up. So that I knew he was being completely honest about what was happening, and I didn't realize how serious it was until I got that letter.

LINENGER: I really didn't care about what the press said, but my wife did send me in the middle of a letter, she snuck in a line. I'm surprised they even sent it up to me because everything had to get approved by the Russian side, but it had a one line quote that said there was a small fire on Mir non-threatening. The crew put on respirators as a precaution; everything is normal. And when I read that I said that's a different space station and that's a different fire than the one I just barely survived.

NARRATOR: For the Russians the important thing was that the fire was out, and the crew had survived unhurt. To this day, they believe this event was insignificant.

TSIBLIYEZ: It was like a cigarette lighting up, but it gave off flames rather than smoke that it should've done. Nothing else caused fire, not the chair, not the cable, no bit of rag, not a hat or a jacket, nothing else burned. That's the truth. Ask anyone you want.

LINENGER: That I think is indicative of the compartment they've operated in for so long. They didn't have to explain these things to the outside world for a long time, and as long as they kept the Mir flying and everybody alive and the operation going, the details of it were not that important because all their government cared about early on was that they had this symbol in orbit, and that they were continuing the program.

TSIBLIYEZ: As For the fire, the term fire, I don't like it and I don't think it applies here. We just called this unfortunate incident "the unplanned burning of an oxygen canister."

LINENGER: They just didn't want to talk about the fire. As a matter of a fact, during one communication session, and I had it out with the ground because I finally just blurted into the conversation saying that I need to talk to somebody. And they said—they basically ignored me, and they would not let me talk to anyone about the fire.

NARRATOR: While the disagreements continued on Earth, life returned to normal on Mir. Jerry, Vasily, Sascha divided their time between scientific experiments and maintenance of Mir's aging equipment.

LINENGER: We had many system failures, and they were in need of your constant attention. And on many days I'd start an experiment in the morning to get it running. Then, I'd run over help hacksaw through a pipe and plug the ends, and then run back to my experiment. I'd have three or four watches on with alarms set to different things that I had to run back to. So I was multi-tasking in order to get everything accomplished.

NARRATOR: Sascha had his own problems. The oxygen generators kept breaking down, and he was having a hard time keeping the upper hand.

LAZUTKIN: It's like when the tamer goes into the tiger's cage and says, " I'm going to tame you; I"m the human. I'm in charge."

LINENGER: The problem was at the same time that occurred we also had cooling problems, and the inside temperature of Mir was over 90 degrees for about a month—Fahrenheit.

At the same time, our toilet broke. And of course, the ground says fix the oxygen generator. Well, after that compass we all snuck away and started working on the toilet because you know when you gotta go, you gotta go.

NARRATOR: In the middle of these problems, the Progress arrived.

LINENGER: The Progress is normally a great sight. The Progress launches from earth comes up, brings all the resupplies you need, critical parts, food, totally automatic, docks onto the Mir space station. You then take maybe two or three weeks to unload it. At that point you now have an empty vehicle. You use that space to put your garbage in. When it's full, Progress undocks, re-enters the atmosphere in a sort of uncontrolled fashion and burns up during reentry, never to be seen again.

NARRATOR: But this time, Mission Control wanted to do things a bit differently. Instead of jettisoning the Progress, they wanted to send it out into space, turn it around, bring it back to Mir to test a new docking system. It was a procedure that would have grave consequences. The Russians have been using an automatic system to dock Progress cargo ships successfully for years. Now, they wanted to replace it with a much cheaper manual system called Torout. Vasily had practiced manual docking using the Torout simulator, but never in real life. The way Torout works is a camera mounted on the front of the incoming cargo ship transmits an image of the Mir's docking port to the commander's screen. The commander steers Progress as he watches an image of his own ship. But the system didn't work as planned.

TSIBLIYEZ: The camera onboard the cargo ship failed and we couldn't see anything on the monitor.

NARRATOR: With no image to guide him, Vasily still had to steer the Progress or it might collide with Mir, causing a dangerous puncture or lost pressure. As the Progress drew closer and closer, Sascha and Jerry desperately raced from porthole to porthole trying to see the approaching cargo ship.

LAZUTKIN: I'm looking there was nothing. There was nothing, and then suddenly it's there. And, I say, "Vasily, There it is!" Vasily could only look through this port hole. He said, "Which way do I steer"? And, I'm pointing it out to him, the cargo ship.

LINENGER: All the sudden, I get a very frantic call saying, "Jerry, get back in here! Get ready to jump into Soyuz. Get ready to evacuate." I throw the headset off. I go flying back in, glance out the window, and I see vehicle coming very quickly at us similar to a car coming onto a freeway. You know, 70 or 80 miles an hour. Of course, the speed was much greater. But, that sort of feeling of is this guy going to hit me or not.

LAZUTKIN: My life didn't flash before my eyes. Nothing like that. I was just battling to the last trying to avert what was happening.

LINENGER: Vasily was basically standing like this. Firing the thruster with the look of "Am I doing the right thing"? Not really sure if he was firing the correct sequence because he did not have a view in the television screen. The only feedback he had was to yell to Sascha "what did it do? Did it turn it to the left? Is it doing what I'm thinking it's doing?" He'd fly back, take a look again, fly back, fire a thruster. It was totally in the blind.

LAZUTKIN: The picture suddenly appeared on the screen, out of the blue. Vasily saw it. Fixed on it. I saw the cargo ship was passing next to the Spektr module. I thought, God, please don't let it hit Spektr. I'm watching; it flew past us.

NARRATOR: Narrowly missing Mir, Progress burned up as it reentered earth's atmosphere.

LINENGER: Vasily, the next compass, told the ground what he thought about it. He said, "You're setting me up for failure. This is a terrible operation. That was not a good situation." Among the crew we had a little conference. I said do you mind if I tell our side that I'm not comfortable doing that Progress docking? And they said absolutely not, Jerry. Go ahead and tell them.

NARRATOR: Jerry reported the near miss to his American ground support in Moscow. But, it would not be the last time the Russians would test this risky maneuver. After four months and two close calls Jerry's tour on Mir was finally drawing to an end. The space shuttle was delivering another astronaut, Michael Foale, to take his place. NASA says Foale was aware of the problems but was still eager to fly to Mir.


CONTROL: "We have booster ignition and liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis maintaining America's constant presence in space".

FOALE: When I got launched, I was in a very relaxed mood. I was in a holiday mood. Nothing really bothered me about it at the that point.


CONTROL: "This is a special mission for Michael Foale; he's flown three times before, but on this particular flight, of course, he will be staying aboard the Mir space station".

FOALE: I really had high hopes that things were going to be very easy.

LINENGER: You know, watching the shuttle coming up underneath us 18,000 miles an hour was the most beautiful sight in the world. I was ready to go home. I had done my duty. My time was up in my mind. I knew I had this much time. I had maintained my efficiency throughout that time, and for me it was a moment in triumph. The shuttle's there. I'd made it, and when the shuttle came and docked it was glorious.

NARRATOR: In addition to an on-camera tour of Mir from Mission Control, Jerry briefed Michael in confidence about his experiences on board.

FOALE: Jerry and I talked for a long time, maybe a total of six hours or so over three or four days just privately between the two of us. He told me a lot of things. He described the fire, for example, that he'd experienced.

LINENGER: "The fire was basically in this region here with the flames shooting across this way"...

FOALE: So, my eyes were wide open and I understood what I was getting into.

LINENGER: "We had one other body in front of me. I was passing the fire extinguisher. But we could only get one person in here"....

FOALE: Jerry was being very careful to tell me, don't be fooled by the illusion that this is all OK while the shuttle is here. It will change.

CONTROL CENTER: I think Jerry might want to say something to you guys here in the control center.

LINENGER: They moved right in, steady as can be. It was great to see them, and it's going to be a great celebration here.

CONTROL CENTER: "Jerry, it's great to see you, and we're looking forward to having you back at Ellington".

LINENGER: Then, we had to say goodbye. And, that's what I did. I said good-bye, good luck. We've had a great stay together and I'll see you back on the planet. "It's kind of sorry to see them close the hatch on ourselves"....

My time was up. I was leaving, and I didn't have any terrible, overwhelming emotion other than pure joy to be heading home.

NARRATOR: As the shuttle departed, everyone hoped that Michael Foale's stint on Mir would be less eventful that Jerry's.

TSIBLIYEZ: When Michael arrived the atmosphere did change a little. A new person had arrived, and we felt we had to look after him. We had to show the new man around. Tell him everything. Make a fuss over it.

FOALE: They think Americans and Westerners, generally, are soft. They believe that Russians have a natural ability to suffer, to take hardship and surmount it. They think, "Oh, we have to go to make this easy for that person. This person is going to be unhappy, miserable, if it's not easier for them than it is for us." And, it's a feeling of condescension and patronage. And, Sascha, I mean I love him, but he, I had to always laugh. He would always try and shelter me from anything that was going on Mir And the institution is try to shelter the foreigner from anything that is going on.

NARRATOR: Life on Mir settled into an established pattern. But the calm of Michael's first few weeks on board would soon be shattered. A hint that trouble was on the horizon came when Vasily talked with his astrologer, not an uncommon practice in Russia or among cosmonauts.

ASTROLOGER: How are you my little rabbits?

LAZUTKIN: Everything seems OK?

ASTROLOGER: Yes, but you are about to enter a strange new period.

NARRATOR: Several weeks after Michael Foale arrived Russian mission control delivered some bad news. They wanted Vasily to try and dock another Progress using the manual system.

FOALE: He wasn't happy with the first attempt they made. He said this was a terrible event. He uses the word strashna. It was nightmarish event that haunted him in a way. He wasn't any longer sure in his ability to pull this off.

NARRATOR: And it wasn't just Vasily's reputation that was on the line.

FOALE: They have come up with the idea of a contract for the cosmonauts to be paid a certain large sum, basically a salary, at the end of the flight should everything have gone well. The way they determine the way everything has gone well is by the controllers who are also the judges of this process, come up with a list of what the hope will be achieved during a flight and the assign a value to each item. And then, as the flight progresses if something is not achieved a black mark is assigned. They call it azemashaunia. At the end of the flight the control team has the right to say you did not carry out this plan as we desired. We are going to lop so much money off.

NARRATOR: Vasily could not affod to fail again. After loading a Progress with trash the crew was to send it out into space, turn it around, and redock it manually. The same procedure which had nearly caused a crash before.

FOALE: I was totally ignorant of what they were doing. I had no idea what they doing. No one at NASA knew what the Russians were doing. What we didn't pay attention enough to was that the Russians were doing something new. We didn't know that was going to cause them to not work this thing out properly, and take risks that we don't think they would normally have entered into.

NARRATOR: Russian Mission Control thought the radar on the automatic docking system might have caused the video monitor to fail on the previous manual attempt. So they made a crucial decision. They switched the radar off.

FOALE: I'm still thinking everything is normal because no one has told me about what systems were turned off or on.

NARRATOR: Without the radar, Vasily wasn't given the cargo ship's speed or position. His only guide was the image of Mir taken from Progress, an image that was almost impossible to see.

TSIBLIYEZ: It was very difficult to make out the station. It looks very similar to the clouds.

FOALE: Sascha and I, meanwhile, tried to look out a window to try and find this thing.

NARRATOR: They had laser rangefinders that gave distance and speed, but until they could pinpoint the cargo ship, Vasily would have to make the judgements on his own.

FOALE: Vasily now was showing a little impatience for us to find it and see it, and give him a range mark.

NARRATOR: Sascha left his camera pointed at the video screen, showing the view of Mir from the incoming Progress.

FOALE: Things had gone wrong, very badly wrong. The range and the speed had been horribly misjudged.

LAZUTKIN: When I saw that the Progress was approaching too fast, I wondered why? I fired the braking rockets but it did not slow down. Through the porthole, I could see the cargo ship gliding below us.

FOALE: Sascha looked extremely agitated, stood up and came erect and said, "Michael, (inaudible) to the spacecraft."

LAZUTKIN: I said "Michael, get in the escape ship." And he flew across there.

FOALE: That order that Sascha gave me "(inaudible), don't stay and try to help us. Don't let us use your expertise. Don't let us do anything with you. Just get out the way to the spacecraft."

LAZUTKIN: There wasn't enough time and braking power to direct the cargo ship away from the station. It was full of menace, like a shark. I watched this black body, covered in spots, sliding past below me. I looked closer and at that point, there was a great thump and the whole station shook.

FOALE: I felt through my fingers a shudder, a thump on the station and I heard what seemed to be far off, like a thump. At that point, I knew we had been hit by the Progress.

LAZUTKIN: The decompression alarm system immediately went off. The pressure began to fall and the station began to spin.

NARRATOR: The Progress had smashed a hole in the solar panels and air was leaking out of the ship.

TSIBLIYEZ: We had to calculate how much time we had left. 540 millibars pressure is critical. Below that, and anyone left on the station can lose consciousness at any moment.

NARRATOR: Air was leaking because Progress had punched a small hole in the Spektr module where American astronauts usually sleep. If they didn't seal off the module, the loss of air would kill everyone.

LAZUTKIN: We knew time was running out. There was a battle going on. We had to work as fast as possible. We had to beat time.

FOALE: Vasily was basically monitoring the pressure fall on a very sensitive instrument, a barometer in the base block and stayed at his central post there. While he was doing that, we came into the range of the ground stations, the Russian ground stations. He told them that we had been hit. They asked him "Is there a problem?" He said, "Yes, we are leaking air."

ZBRIAT: When we heard the words "decompression on station," I felt a sense of detachment. It wasn't me hearing this. It was some other person. Then I shuddered; like waking from a terrible dream because something like this is not supposed to happen.

CONTROL CENTER: The interpreter gets a funny look on his face and just looks at me and says, "They hit something." Just a very plain of day, ordinary tone. So I'm thinking maybe the crew hit their hand with a hammer, you know, something plain like that. But then of course I asked him, "What do you mean they hit something. Explain a little bit." And he says "Well, the Progress hit the space station."

CONTROL CENTER:I was asleep again and another one of those middle of the night phone calls which had seemed to be coming too regularly. This time they said that the Progress hit the Mir and there is a leak. They think it's in Spektr. They are closing the hatch. And of course my next question is how in the world could this have possibly happened?

LINENGER: When I was back on the ground and heard of that accident. It was about a month after I got back. You know, it was terrible news.

MRS. TSIBLIYEZ: I remember how my children immediately went quiet. Maybe they didn't understand the full extent of the danger. Maybe my reaction affected them. But they went as quiet as mice.

NARRATOR: On Mir, Sascha and Michael were trying to close the hatch on the Spektr module to stop the decompression. But first, they had to cut all the power cables from Spektr's solar panels which run through the hatchway.

FOALE: Sascha was working so fast and so furiously, that I was not going to stop him in the slightest. All I did was I would gather up the cables as he would clear them and I would tie them off so they wouldn't fall back once again across the hatchway. And it was when we got to one thin cable that was not—had no obvious plug on either side and it was the last one left that was stopping us from closing the hatch and we—Sascha says, "Is there a knife?" And I looked around and there no knife apparent in the node. Sascha had to go and get one from the kitchen table and we brought back a kitchen knife and started sawing on it. And we got sparks coming out of it. So I said, "Sascha I don't think we should try and saw this. This is too bad." So then we had already wasted already another minute, probably trying to cut this remaining thin cable. We then hunted around to try and find the plug where that cable went to somewhere else in the node. It was hidden under a mass of other cables. We found that and disconnected it and then threw that cable into the Spektr.

NARRATOR: They succeeded in closing the hatch. But they reported that their situation was continuing to deteriorate. The impact had knocked Mir into a slow tumble. Its solar panels were out of alignment with the sun; the batteries drained and critical systems shut down.

FOALE: For the first time I experienced a totally silent, still space station, where there are no fans moving, there is no light on, nothing is alive. Just our breathing is causing any sound.

NARRATOR: Almost everything on Mir had died or had been switched off to conserve energy, even radio contact with Earth.

LAZUTKIN: The silence is deafening. You want to close your ears so you can't actually hear the sound of silence. It's painful. You experience flight in a completely different way. Now suddenly there was silence. We watched the polar lights and the stars in complete silence.

FOALE: I said to Vasily, "In spite of how bad a day this has been, this is a beautiful moment." And Vasily just said, "It's been a terrible day." Vasily said "They're just gonna—they're gonna—they're gonna kill me. My career is over, it's all over." And I said, "Oh Vasily, I don't think that is necessarily the case. Americans were involved. The fact that Americans were involved in this program means that they can't just push you aside." And he said, "No, Michael, you don't know our system."

NARRATOR: But the crew was facing more than the death of their careers. To save Mir and themselves, they had to get the station realigned to the sun. So Vasily used the rocket thrusters belonging to the Soyuz escape ship to nudge Mir back into position. Slowly, Mir began to catch the sunlight again. Over the next few hours, the station flickered back to life, one instrument at a time. Back on Earth, the inquests had begun.

RUSSIAN CONTROL: It wasn't equipment failure. No. Apparently, though it is too early to say for certain, it was human error.

CONTROL CENTER: There were certainly were mistakes made on board. There were some mistakes made on the ground. There were mistakes made on our side. I still blame myself for not being more inquisitive about the details of what they were doing and what the safeguards were.

NARRATOR: In Moscow, the finger pointing started in earnest. Vasily's instruction manual said he was to stop the Progress 50 meters away from Mir, wait for Mission Control's go ahead, and then proceed to dock.

RUSSIAN CONTROL: Why didn't he stop at 50 meters but kept flying the Progress by the book as if nothing was wrong, when it could be clearly have been tragedy. The combination of circumstances and factors aggravated the situation. All were saying the main reason for the accident was the incorrect technique on the part of the commander. The commander did not act according to the expert's instructions.

TSIBLIYEZ: That's the whole point. I followed the instructions exactly but why didn't it slow down? That what I ask myself. Why?

NARRATOR: To find out why Vasily couldn't stop the Progress as it approached Mir, experts were called into Star City, Russia's cosmonaut training center. They thought Vasily might have been unable to brake because trash in the Progress had been loaded off-center. They tested this idea using a simulator flown by eight of Russia's top cosmonauts.

RUSSIAN: Some cosmonauts collided with the station when carrying out the same maneuver. Others flew safely by the station at high speed. I think only one managed to brake as Vasily was instructed to do and that was because to some extent, he ignored the instructions.

NARRATOR: If Vasily couldn't brake the Progress, why didn't he simply steer it away or abort the docking?

FOALE: The reason why I think Vasily didn't abort is because he is a military officer who has always carried out orders. The relationship of Vasily to the control center is what I consider to be a sort of master/slave culture that has existed in Russia and the Soviet Union for a very long time. It's still there and its presence in the Soviet system, it is still now controlling the space program.

NARRATOR: Mir has been a dress rehearsal for the next phase of space exploration, the new international space station. The success of ISS now depends, to some extent, on how well Russia and America can work together.

CONTROL CENTER: You cannot have two bosses when you have a critical operation going on and if something is going wrong, you have to have one person calling the shots and making the decisions. But right now in the ISS, the leader is the U.S.

FOALE: The ISS is going to be dominated by America. America is putting in many, many billions more than Russia is into that program. The Russians feel that what they have done is not valued. Pride is their issue. All I can say is it that it is greatly valued. But we must do things that are different.

CONTROL CENTER: It has got to work exactly right or somebody's going to get hurt.

NARRATOR: For the exhausted crew aboard Mir, the problems were not over. Three days after the collision, a computer problem disabled the steering. Four days later, the oxygen generators failed again. Vasily developed an irregular heartbeat from all the stress. He was put on sedatives and ordered to rest.

LAZUTKIN: We simply had to work. There was no point in thinking about tiredness. We had work to do, so we worked.

NARRATOR: To make matters worse, Sascha accidently disconnected a vital computer cable and Mir fell out of alignment with the sun. Once again, the station was adrift with almost no power.

______: Oh my feelings. Shooting yourself would be easier. It was terrible. As soon as the station emergency alarm went off, I realized instantly that I'd made a mistake.

NARRATOR: Mir drifted for about 18 hours before they were able to get power back. Over the next month, the crew continued to struggle with repairs. The press picked up rumors that Vasily was to lose six months salary and his docking bonus. Critics were questioning Mir's safety and whether another American astronaut should replace Michael Foale at the end of his tour of duty as planned.

______: There were lots of questions about Mir, and then the question came down to should we sent anyone at all.

NARRATOR: Congress asked NASA to guarantee that Mir was safe for its astronauts.

______: And we went through our normal safety reviews, we went through additional reviews, we went through independent reviews. We talked to the InSpektr General, the General Accounting Office, the Congress, several independent panels with headquarters set up. Almost too many people to count. And the consensus was "Yes, we should continue."

NARRATOR: Two more Americans were sent to Mir but not before Soyuz was dispatched in August 1997 to bring a new Russian crew to Mir and take Vasily and Sascha home.

______: I didn't want to leave the station because I felt it was like a living creature. No one who has been there thinks of Mir as simply as a pile of metal. It is as if it touches you inside and you feel like you are part of the station.

NARRATOR: Vasily and Sascha returned safely to Earth and did not have their pay docked. They are unlikely to be sent into space again.

______: After all the dirt that was thrown at us, nobody ever apologized to us, not on television or in the newspapers. Absolutely nobody apologized.

NARRATOR: Sascha Lazutkin made a guest appearance on QVC, a television shopping channel, explaining the components of a Russian space suit.

______: Alexander Lazutkin is again with us. Thank you so much for joining us. Now we have something that is also very, very special. This is a cosmonaut space suit. This is an actual cosmonaut space suit. The item number is X1098...

NARRATOR: Michael Foale spent the next month on Mir without incident and still works for NASA as an astronaut. Jerry Linenger resigned from NASA. It is doubtful he will ever go into space again.

______: I think one of the hardest things people have is knowing when to close the chapter. The Mir is one, fantastic accomplishment. Putting that thing together over the last 10 or 11 years is tremendous. But I think that you can safely say that it's time to retire Mir with dignity and move on to the next generation space station.

NARRATOR: The last American astronaut returned safely from Mir in June of 1998. The Russians continue to send crews to Mir. There are plans still indefinite to retire the space station in the near future.

______: Mir will soon have company. Preview the new international space station on NOVA's Web site at To order this show for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670 and to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos.

______: On NOVA, enter a world where anything can happen. The art of illusion meets the science of perception in "Special Effects: Titanic and Beyond."

______: NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston. Major funding for NOVA is provided the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

______: And by Iomega, makers of the zip drive and the 100-megabyte zip discs. Your universe is expanding but you can save it in your own personal space. Iomega, because it's your stuff.

______: This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

______: And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

______: This is PBS.

______: Warning signs from a notorious killer in the deadly shadow of Vesuvius. Coming soon on NOVA.


About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2006

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site