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Cosmonauts Make Vital Repairs to Damaged Mir Space Station

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times

In another tense chapter of this summer's thriller aboard the Mir space station, two Russian cosmonauts overcame perilous new failures Friday to make vital repairs and rescue research projects feared lost in the cosmos.

The nearly seven-hour mission to reconnect severed power cables and assess damage to the punctured Spektr research module may mark a turnaround for the luckless, aging space station. But the successes were delayed by more of what has become an almost daily battery of potential disasters.

"We could have called it all off at several points, but we wouldn't allow ourselves to be knocked from the saddle," Mission Control Center chief Vladimir Solovev said.

As Mir commander Anatoly Solovev and flight engineer Pavel Vinogradov donned spacesuits, at first they were thwarted by a faulty valve regulating pressure in the sealed-off transit chamber where they were preparing for an internal spacewalk into the airless Spektr. Solovev readjusted the valve, but then Vinogradov's spacesuit sprang a leak at the left glove.

With the pressure down to almost zero, a gush of oxygen from his protective clothing could be heard over the monitors at the Mission Control Center here, bringing a stunned hush to the hundreds of officials and journalists gathered to follow the repair mission.

"This is something serious," Vinogradov could be heard telling ground controllers. "Yes, I can feel that it is leaking."

Conscious of the risk of the cosmonaut's body exploding in a vacuum, Solovev and ground-based flight controllers quickly repressurized the chamber to allow Vinogradov to swap the damaged glove for a spare.

More than two hours behind schedule and rapidly expending precious power and oxygen, the two Russians finally opened the hatch and entered Spektr for the first glimpse of the module since a June 25 accident knocked it out of commission.

Spektr was punctured and depressurized when an unmanned cargo craft crashed into it during a manual docking practice directed by former Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev. Four of Mir's 10 solar energy panels are arrayed outside Spektr and have been isolated since the crash, leaving the space station to limp along on about half its normal power.

Vinogradov managed to reconnect nine battery cables and two sockets, ground controllers reported later; then the cosmonauts spent the next two hours poring over the research module to find the hole put there by the cargo capsule.

"To our great disappointment, the crew did not notice any visible penetration marks," said Solovev, the mission control chief who shares the same last name as the Mir commander but is no relation.

During their search of the abandoned Spektr, they did salvage some data from experiments conducted there before the crash. And they brought out some of U.S. astronaut Michael Foale's personal belongings, including his long-lost toothbrush and a photograph of his wife.

Foale, who manned the Soyuz escape capsule while his fellow crewmen roamed his former living quarters, could be heard directing Vinogradov by radio through the drawers of his locker in search of data and gear. "I think this has been a super day," the British-born Foale then declared as the cosmonauts concluded their mission. "We carried out everything we set out to do, and more. Well done, everybody!"