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Russia’s Proud Space Program Endangered By Mechanical Snafus

August 31, 1994

MOSCOW (AP) _ Two failed dockings at the Mir space station have imperiled Russia’s manned space program, an enduring source of pride through the nation’s recent turmoil.

A space ferry filled with food and American research equipment will make a final attempt Friday to hook up with the 130-ton Mir.

If it fails, Russian space officials acknowledged with rare candor Wednesday, scheduled missions to bring European and American astronauts to the orbital station may have to be scrubbed.

Independent experts suggested an even more dire scenario, since cosmonauts likely would be forced to evacuate with food running low. The Mir itself, centerpiece of the Russian program and the world’s only functioning space station, might be lost.

″The risk of losing the station if it’s unmanned now is substantial,″ James Oberg, an independent consultant and expert on the Russian space program, said from Houston.

After the two dockings failed because of what officials said were mechanical problems, Russian space officials weren’t willing to discuss the long-term impact in detail.

But Vsevolod Latyshev, a spokesman for the flight control center outside Moscow, said that ″there is a threat″ to upcoming missions: planned launches to take a German to the Mir in October and an American in March.

The Russian space program, which sent the first human into orbit in 1961, has fallen on hard times since the Soviet collapse three years ago. It has had trouble keeping talented scientists and paying its bills, and thieves reportedly even pilfered food intended for cosmonauts at the launch site earlier this year.

Forced to make cutbacks, the Russians took some gambles they may regret.

One was scrapping a scheduled July supply mission. Another was shutting down several tracking stations, leaving the Mir out of touch for as long as 12 hours a day. That could be critical if the station malfunctioned while unmanned.

″Over the last couple of years they’ve whittled away at the program to the point where they have a hollow shell,″ Oberg said. ″A single setback like this could cause the whole space station program to come down.″

The Russians will get some much-needed cash from an agreement signed last December in Moscow. The United States agreed to pay $400 million and send up to 10 shuttle flights to the Mir through 1997, along with equipment and experiments the Russians need.

But even though several outside observers said the Russian program has put its worst problems behind it, the current crisis could be catastrophic.

The three cosmonauts aboard the Mir have a ″getaway″ ship and enough food and water to last about another 25 days, according to Latyshev.

But the supply ship Progress has only enough fuel for one more docking attempt, space officials said, and no backup is available. Experts said it is unlikely a new shipment could reach the Mir before the food runs out.

The Mir’s 32-year-old commander, Alexander Malenchenko, will try to make the rendezvous by remote control on Friday, with millions of people watching on live Russian television. The first two tries were automatic.

Russia’s manned space program will be effectively suspended if he fails, said Veronika Romanenkova, who writes about space for the ITAR-Tass news agency.

″That would mean the international mission (with an European Space Agency astronaut in October) can’t start as scheduled, ruining the whole schedule of space flights for two years ahead,″ she said in an interview.

Both Romanenkova and Oberg said the Mir, if temporarily abandoned, could meet the fate of the Salyut-7 station. It failed and went out of control while unmanned in 1986 - the same year the Mir was launched.

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