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For Mir, Visit From Shuttle Spells Relief

September 28, 1997|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Amid public concern about crew safety, the space shuttle Atlantis executed a perfect linkup with the troubled Russian space station Mir on Saturday, bringing fresh supplies, repair equipment and a new American astronaut, 41-year-old doctor-engineer David Wolf.

The docking also brought visible relief to those connected with the joint U.S.-Russian space project, who have watched Mir crew members endure a procession of heart-stopping calamities that has lent a "Perils of Pauline" dimension to work on the aging space station.

"Everything's gone very well," said NASA spokesman James Hartsfield. "It was a very smooth docking."

Saturday's docking was made especially tense because Mir's central guidance control computer--the instrument that keeps it stable--has failed three times during the last three weeks, and any repeat of those difficulties would have wreaked havoc on the precise maneuver. A replacement computer for Mir was among the supplies being carried by Atlantis.

The hookup was completed shortly before 1 p.m. PDT after shuttle commander James Wetherbee carefully nudged the shuttle the final 30 feet toward Mir at a rate of one inch per second.

At space centers half a world apart--one in Houston, the other near Moscow--ground crews watched anxiously as television pictures beamed from Mir showed the shuttle moving in. Wetherbee and Mir crew members engaged in cryptic, tense cross-chatter in both Russian and English before Wetherbee finally announced, "We've got it, Houston."

His words triggered applause in Moscow, smiles in Houston and eased tension at both centers. About 90 minutes later, shuttle and Mir crew members were celebrating their rendezvous together.

One NASA official joked just after the initial docking that Wetherbee would likely greet the Mir crew by shaking hands with his right hand and carrying the replacement computer in his left. And indeed, as soon as the hatches swung open, Wetherbee handed the device to the Mir crew. "You guys have done a great job up here," he said.

Mir's computer failures have caused the space station to drift out of control and lose the alignment necessary for its solar panels to take in power from the sun.

Wolf will be the sixth American to serve aboard Mir. He is expected to spend four months on the orbiting station, with much of the time spent on the many repairs Mir requires. Wolf's mother reportedly joked that she hoped her son was carrying a screwdriver.

"I'm going to like this place," Wolf assured Mission Control after a quick look around.

Wolf replaces astrophysicist Michael Foale, who will transfer from Mir to the shuttle later today, completing a 4 1/2-month ride that included Mir's collision with a cargo ship on June 25. That crash ruptured one of the station's seven modules, knocked out half its power and destroyed months of scientific experimental work.

Russian Space Agency officials earlier this month concluded that mistakes by two Russian crew members caused the crash, which occurred as the pair, who have since returned to Earth, were practicing a manual docking maneuver. Atlantis also carries the equipment needed to repair the damaged module.

In addition to the collision and unsettling computer problems, a potentially dangerous fire broke out aboard Mir in February when an oxygen canister exploded. More recently, the space station has experienced oxygen generator breakdowns, cooling system leaks and a malfunctioning carbon dioxide removal system.

Some of these problems have been blamed on the station's advanced age. Its core module is 11 years old.

Collectively, Mir's difficulties have cast it as a kind of Space Age rattletrap--an image that has raised questions about the wisdom of sending another American for an extended tour of duty. One recent public opinion poll found that two out of every three respondents disapproved of the decision to send Wolf into space.

"There was a lot of discussion about the risk," Wetherbee said from Mir. "We are here to tell you, all 10 of us, that we think the benefits far outweigh the risk and that's why we're here."

Some observers have questioned whether the political price of terminating such a high-profile Russian-American cooperative venture may have played a role in NASA's continued participation, a charge NASA officials strenuously reject.

Against this backdrop, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said they conducted five separate safety reviews of the Atlantis mission before NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin announced Thursday, only hours before the scheduled launch, that it would go ahead. NASA spokesman Hartsfield said the last of these reviews was completed the day before the launch, while another was carried out two days before the start of the mission.

"They were a double-check," Hartsfield said, noting that they followed previous safety reviews, prompted in part by the heightened political and public concern. "All of these analyses pointed to a 'yes' that it was safe to proceed."

Hartsfield said the public may have an exaggerated sense of the risks to astronauts posed by Mir's many problems. He noted, for example, that a "lifeboat," in the form of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft permanently docked to Mir, is constantly available to the crew in case of a disaster that threatens the entire space station.

"If something did happen, the Soyuz would have them back on Earth in a few hours," he said. "We'd no more work on a space station without a lifeboat than we'd go to sea without one. If it wasn't there no one would feel very comfortable."

Atlantis is expected to remain docked to Mir for six days, with its seven-member crew transferring supplies and carrying out immediate repairs on Mir before beginning its return journey to Earth. It is due to land next Sunday.

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