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Space Friday, 3 July, 1998, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
Mir: floating from one crisis to the next
solar panels
Damage to the solar panels on Mir: the crew prepared to abandon the space station
Even the sharpest second-hand car salesman would have great difficulty selling the veteran Russian space station Mir.

But although Mir is to many a byword for second-hand space junk the station has still done a vital job for scientists.

Michael Foale, the British-born astronaut who spent 145 days on board Mir said it was like going into "someone's very old garage where there's just been stuff put away for years on end and nobody's moved it".

mir in flight
Mir in its full glory: "like an old garage"
His unflattering portrayal of Mir, which is seven years past its original expected lifespan, is the latest description of what has been described as the longest crisis in the history of space flight.

The trials and tribulations of Mir - which means ironically means Peace in Russian - includes a fire, a mid-space collision and numerous computer crashes.


The problems started on February 23, 1997 when an oxygen-generating canister burst into flames. It burned for about 14 minutes and blocked the exit leading to one of two "lifeboats".

The smoke was so thick the four Russians, one American and one German on board could barely see.

It was the worst fire experienced on a spacecraft and almost led to the crew abandoning Mir.

Two weeks later a second main oxygen generator malfunctioned, forcing the crew to rely on back-up canisters similar to the one which caused the fire.

A month later there were more problems with the space ship's breathing apparatus when the main carbon dioxide-removal system malfunctioned forcing the crew to use the back-up system.


On June 25, Mir faced its most dramatic crisis in its decade in space, when a cargo ship rammed the station during a docking test.

Solar panels which took the battering
The incident caused extensive damage to a laboratory and buckled an energy-producing solar panel, which cut electricity supplies to the station by 50%.

Michael Foale was on board Mir when the collision happened and told the BBC he thought he would die.

Michael Foale: thought he was going to die
He said: "It was frightening for one or two seconds. The first thought was are we going to die instantly because of air rushing out so fast we can't control it."

Computer crash

They had two days to recover from the collision trauma before an on-board computer crashed, the first of many malfunctions over the months to come.

The computer problems were blamed on an electrical problem, possibly a power surge.

Another computer crash later in the year during the docking of another cargo ship set the station adrift and led to a loss in power.

Yet another computer failure caused the station's solar panels to become misaligned with the Sun, leading to more power supply difficulties.

Heart problems

It was not just the space station which showed signs of fatigue. In mid-July 1997 Commander Vasily Tsibliyev reported irregular heart beats and was barred from spacewalks scheduled to repair the damage.

Doctors attributed his condition to the stress of the collision a month earlier.

Disconnected plug

In July 1997 another Russian cosmonaut, Alexander Lazutkin, added another footnote in the logbook of Mir's increasingly accident-prone operation when he prematurely disconnected a cable, setting the vessel adrift without solar power.

The Russian denied stress or tiredness were responsible for the accident. He said he simply made a mistake.

Spanner in the works

air leak
Two cosmonauts locate the air leak
The problems on Mir continued into 1998 with the discovery of an air leak in an exit hatch which had caused a loss of pressure in the station's docking chamber.

It was later fixed during a space walk by cosmonauts

A separate space walk to repair the solar panel damaged in the June collision had to be postponed following another embarrassing malfunction.

Several spanners used to open an exit hatch broke and the operation was postponed until April.

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