CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — They came dangerously close to abandoning Mir when the worst fire ever aboard a flying spacecraft broke out one year ago. No wonder the cosmonauts pulled out the cognac once the smoke cleared.
The Feb. 23 blaze was just the first in a string of calamities that would bedevil the Russian space station and its international crews: a mid-space collision, a crashed computer, noxious fumes, blistering temperatures.
The revelation that there was cognac aboard is hardly likely to improve Mir's battered image. But cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin says it was purely for medicinal purposes--that having extinguished the fire, the crew needed a sip of the hard stuff to extinguish the stress.
"It was like any people on Earth who have weekends, holidays. We needed to relax, so we would allow ourselves a sip of cognac," he said.
"On board there is a little bit. It is needed because you can imagine the stressful situation on board, therefore a small quantity can be consumed," echoed cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev.
American astronaut Jerry Linenger, a physician, declined. He says he doesn't drink much alcohol on Earth, let alone in space where "you need to have all your senses, you need to be sharp every minute."
According to Linenger, the cognac is brought aboard on unmanned supply ships and sipped through straws. Russian ground control winks at the practice, he said.
NASA flatly forbids drinking in orbit, but the Russian space agency's rules are looser: Each program sets its own regulations for its own spacecraft.
"They look at it . . . as a medication to calm your nerves and help you through some tough situations," Linenger said. "But the problem on Mir is, the next day is also a tough situation."
It's so tough, day after day and month after month, that even astronauts with combat experience have returned from four-month stints saying never again.
"I would not send any more people to Mir," said David Leestma, director of NASA's flight crew operations. "Everybody comes back and says it's the hardest thing they've ever done."
Seven NASA astronauts have served on Mir, the last being Andrew Thomas, who arrived in January. All are convinced that their work has contributed to the next big step in space research--to assemble an international station in orbit starting this summer.
Mir's setbacks have taught NASA and the American public much about what a space station can and can't do, says Marcia Smith, a specialist in space policy for the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
But, she said, "There's still a question as to whether you needed seven people to go up to learn this."
Linenger, who quit NASA at the end of 1997, feels good about his contribution: oxygen generators that are safer than the one that burst into flames. The igniter on the solid-fuel, oxygen-generating canister in all likelihood caused the blaze, so the canisters on the international space station will be adapted accordingly.
The fire burned like a blowtorch for about 14 minutes and blocked the exit leading to one of two lifeboats, each capable of holding just three people. The next space station will have a smoke-inhibiting system, and its lifeboats will be twice as big.
The smoke was so thick aboard Mir that its six occupants--an American, a German and four Russians--could barely see. Linenger's oxygen mask didn't work, so he had to grab another. The fire extinguishers proved ineffective against the burning lithium perchlorate fuel.
After the fire, Linenger suggested that everyone take vitamins and powdered milk to neutralize any contaminants inhaled or swallowed. Russian flight controllers concurred and also recommended "a little special medicine," which turns out to have been the cognac.
The fire was "one of the worst things that ever happened in the history of spaceflight," Tsibliyev said.
He ought to know.
After the fire, problems snowballed aboard 12-year-old Mir, some because of its age, others for unrelated reasons.
Tsibliyev, Mir's commander, and Lazutkin, his flight engineer, were there for all of it: when the fire broke out; when the cargo ship rammed and ruptured Mir in a June docking test; when computers crashed and the station lurched through orbit; when noxious antifreeze fumes leaked from corroded pipes; when temperatures inside shot above 90 F.
Lazutkin prematurely disconnected a cable and set Mir adrift without solar power. He insisted that he wasn't exhausted or overworked; he simply made a mistake.
Tsibliyev, overwrought after the collision, developed an irregular heartbeat. Doctors attributed it to stress, and he was barred from spacewalking repairs.
Tsibliyev knew he would be blamed for the collision since he was the one controlling the unmanned cargo ship. He was, in fact, faulted by some Russian space officials, but a Russian investigative board ultimately spread the blame around, citing "an unfavorable combination of factors."
The Russians say they will keep Mir orbiting with rotating crews through 1999, after which the station would be brought back into the atmosphere to burn up. No date has been set.
For the cosmonauts, after six months back on Earth, time seems to have softened even their harshest memories.
"Flying on Mir isn't dangerous at all," Tsibliyev noted during a visit to Italy in January, "and the demonstration is the fact that we are continuing to live on it even after the breach caused by the collision."
During a trip to New York earlier this month, Lazutkin declared: "I want to go back."
Was he crazy?
He laughed hard and replied: "All astronauts are crazy men."