LIKE A LOT OF guys who spend time in basement workshops, I have been following the news stories of "the guys in space," the two Russians and one American who have been trying to fix the damaged Mir space station.
According to news accounts, they have attempted to make repairs while "crawling around in the clammy darkness" using only flashlights for illumination. They have battled a faulty air-conditioning system. And when something has gone wrong -- for instance, when one of the Mir guys accidentally unplugged a cable that sent the space station tumbling -- they have been subjected to endless second-guessing. Sounds like life at home.
I sympathize with the plight of the Mir guys. So, I think, do a lot of fellows who are familiar with the experience of "crawling around in the clammy darkness."
I know there are some serious differences between attempting repairs on a space station and trying to fix things in your basement. One is that if you make a major mistake in your home you can end up paying a contractor a heap of money to make things right. As the expression goes, you can end up buying the guy a new boat. However, if you make a big mistake in space, you can, as the expression goes, buy the farm. Officials have stressed that a string of troubles on the Mir has not put the three-man crew in life-threatening situations. Buoyed by that assurance, I feel a sense of kinship with the guys of the Mir.
First of all, it seems to me that their troubles began when they were doing a basic manly duty. They were taking care of the
trash. Back in June, the Mir had a little accident when it collided with the Progress M-35, an unmanned vehicle described as a "cargo ship." It turns out the cargo this ship was carrying was trash. After its stop at the Mir, the Progress M-35 was scheduled to plunge into the Earth's atmosphere, burning up. In other words, this baby was headed for the dump. And as every guy with a basement knows, whenever you encounter a dump-bound vehicle, you contribute trash to it.
That, I think, is what the Mir guys planned to do. But they ran into a little problem. Rather than coming to a nice polite stop at the edge of the space station, the speeding cargo ship ended up crashing into the space station, damaging part of its hull and some solar panels. Again, this incident reflects a basic fact of guy life. Trash vehicles don't come to nice polite stops. They speed, even, as in the case of the Progress M-35, when nobody is driving them.
After their dwelling got clobbered by a trash-ship, the Mir guys had to work in dim light because the space station's power systems weren't working at full throttle.
This caused one of the Mir guys to ask mission control to send him extra flashlight bulbs and batteries. This plea for fresh flashlight batteries had to strike a chord in the heart of every guy who has ever stumbled through a darkened house looking for a working flashlight.
Then there is all the second-guessing. It reached its peak this week after one of the Mir guys accidentally unplugged a cable and temporarily sent the space station tumbling. This new trouble occurred as the guy was making preparations to fix the old damage inflicted by the flying trash ship. News accounts described subsequent "testy exchanges" between supervisors on Earth and the Mir guys. The failed repairs reportedly had some earthbound associates "muttering" at the Mir guys.
This incident also struck a chord with me. First of all, everybody knows that when you start to fix one thing -- a damaged module on your space space or the control on your family toaster -- another thing usually goes wrong, which often results in a temporary loss of power.
Secondly, getting muttered at is a major part of a repair guy's life. If I had a dollar for every time my "domestic associate" asked, "Are you sure you know what you are doing," I would be swimming in beer money.
Yesterday, the news was that the Mir guys aren't going to be attempting repairs for a while. One of the Russian guys, Vasily Tsibliyev, has heart trouble. Deputy mission director Sergei Krikalyov told reporters it was "very likely" the risky and complex job of rewiring the damaged part of the space station would have to wait until after the relief crew reached Mir Aug. 7. Tsibliyev and flight engineer Alexander Lazutkin had planned to return to Earth Aug. 26. British-born NASA physicist Michael Foale was to go home aboard a U.S. shuttle in September.
I agree with the waiting tactic. Sometimes, after a repair goes awry -- your toaster spouts flames or your space station takes a tumble -- it is a good idea to let a little time pass before you pick up your tools again. But Mir guys, if you are listening, all of us basement guys are rooting for your success on your next repair attempt.
Pub Date: 7/19/97