NASA gives 'Go' to next astronaut's trip on Mir Benefits override cry over safety conditions

September 26, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Ending weeks of suspense, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin sent astronaut-scientist David Wolf up to the aging Russian spaceship Mir yesterday. He assured Wolf and an anxious public that the trip would be safe and productive.

The space shuttle Atlantis was to launch Wolf and six fellow crewmen into orbit at 10: 30 p.m. yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"When we weigh the potential benefits to America and humankind, we have no choice but to proceed," Goldin told a pre-launch press briefing at National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington. "It's the right thing to do."

If no new problems crop up, the Atlantis will dock with the Mir 160 miles from Earth late tomorrow afternoon. Sunday, Wolf will trade places with Michael Foale, the astronaut who has spent four months aboard the accident-prone Russian spacecraft. Foale is to come back on the Atlantis Oct. 5, while Wolf stays aboard the Mir until January.

"We share our fellow Americans' deep concern for our astronauts' safety," Goldin said. "We have heard the calls of some who say it is time to abandon the Mir. We at NASA are deeply touched by this outpouring of emotion. However, the decision to continue our joint participation aboard Mir should not be based on emotion or politics. It should not be based on fear."

"The astronauts are friends of mine," he added. "We know their families. We wouldn't send them up unless we thought it was safe."

Goldin said he made his decision Wednesday, after four review committees -- two internal and two external to NASA -- declared the Mir is safe enough for another American to fly on.

The space chief said the last few weeks have been agonizing for him, as key congressmen, editorial writers and even some NASA officials charged that the Mir was too unreliable to be entrusted with another American life.

The stakes for Goldin are almost as high as for the astronauts. A former vice president of TRW, the California aerospace company, he took the helm at NASA in 1992, when the agency was at a low point, suffering one expensive flop after another. He has restored its morale and prestige with his constant pressure to perform "better, faster and cheaper." The last thing he wants is a tragedy on his watch.

Before deciding, Goldin said he had a 20-minute conversation with Wolf -- a 41-year-old unmarried physician -- to find out how Wolf felt about the mission.

Wolf told Goldin that he would be in more peril aboard the shuttle than on the Mir, just as the most dangerous times in an airplane flight are the takeoff and landing.

Wolf also said the risk was no greater for him than that faced by the five other Americans who preceded him on the Russian ship.

"It's an acceptable risk," Goldin quoted Wolf as saying.

But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, which oversees NASA operations, continued to argue that the risks to U.S. astronauts outweighed the benefits.

"If we have another disaster after all these warnings, the future of manned space flight will be put back for a generation," he said.

Wolf's flight was endorsed by an external review committee headed by Thomas Young, retired executive vice president of Lockheed Martin. The Russians plan for the Mir to be in operation until at least 1999.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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