ARLINGTON, Va. -- When the Progress cargo ship hit the Russian space station Mir last month, the U.S. astronaut Mike Foale heard ''a big thump, a thud.'' The noise reverberated as an explosion in U.S. political and analytical circles, after a series of recent mishaps to Mir operations, including an on-board fire, failure of an oxygen generator and leaks in the cooling system.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, who is known for his criticism of the growing Russian involvement in U.S. space activities, asked the NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin, to give his personal assurances, based on independent evaluations, that Mir meets or exceeds U.S. space-safety standards before the next U.S. astronaut is put aboard the station. Better, he suggested, Mir should be brought to an honorable end.
Marcia Smith, of the Congressional Research Service, said that ''from a policy perspective, [the collision] adds to the concern among some that the Russian space program might not be reliable partner -- rightly or wrongly.''
The Center for Security Policy said that the latest ''drama and disaster'' jeopardized the life of an American astronaut and his two Russian colleagues and precipitated ''widespread questions about the wisdom of a dubious U.S.-Russian space-cooperation program.''
But, as they say, each problem is also an opportunity. Even a negative Mir experience has enormous importance for future manned space flights, especially those involving the International Space Station.
Imagine that one of the space-station modules is punched by a meteorite or orbital debris. Thanks to the latest Mir accident, we know that such a disaster need not require evacuation of the crew; it would be a local and fixable problem. Mir did not lose pressure, the gyros controlling its attitude returned to normal, and another Progress spacecraft delivered the materials to do the necessary repair work on the station's power system. The crew is in no danger.
Currently, specialists at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center are using a neutral-buoyancy water tank to simulate procedures and operations aimed at sealing the hole in the damaged Spektr module and ultimately repressurizing it. This task should be accomplished by the next crew. All the major malfunctions that have occurred in Mir have been fixed; the Russians will handle this problem, too.
The International Space Station may undergo similar malfunctions. Thus, Mir gives NASA and all the other space-station partners a unique opportunity to learn how to cope with emergency situations that may happen in the orbital outpost -- experience that could not be obtained on Earth.
Learning to work together
Mir's mishaps provide more than technical experience. They teach Russians and Americans how to work together and to solve problems by joint efforts. ''Our relationship has been strengthened by these problems,'' said U.S. astronaut Frank Culbertson, who directs the NASA side of the Shuttle/Mir program.
Those who advocate quitting Mir operations should consider an analogy to aircraft test flying. Imagine terminating the test flights for an aircraft to avoid endangering the lives of test pilots, and then building a new, much more expensive and bigger model, using the same engineering and safety concepts. Will the new machine be free of problems that might have been resolved if the test program had continued? Hardly. The new plane's crew members would become, in effect, the test pilots. Considering that the International Space Station will carry a crew of six, instead of Mir's three, this is not a prudent approach.
Republicans in Congress hailed the movie ''Apollo 13'' as a demonstration of the spirit of exploration, courage, determination and the human spirit. They should support these values by supporting the Mir station. Even without a considerable science program, just for the sake of the safety of future space explorers, Mir's operation should continue as long as there is no direct threat to the life of its crew members.
Yuri Karash was a cosmonaut candidate in the former Soviet Union. He is completing his Ph.D. in space policy and international relations at American University and is a policy analyst at the Center for International Aerospace Cooperation.
Pub Date: 7/15/97