Mir Men Fail To Fix Solar Panel

Mark Fiore Cartoon 30
Mark Fiore
Two cosmonauts ran into unexpected delays Wednesday in setting up equipment for their repair mission outside the Mir -- problems that forced them to re-enter the space station before completing the job.

The mission to stabilize a badly bent solar panel, part of the damage inflicted in a space collision last year had already been set back once, after cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Nikolai Budarin could not open an exit door last month.

This time, they got the door open and even started the spacewalk a few minutes ahead of schedule.

But the mission quickly bogged down: more than four hours into the spacewalk, the cosmonauts had not yet managed to get beyond setting up a hand rail on the module they need to maneuver around the panel.

Musabayev said he and Budarin had trouble unfolding and assembling the rail, which had been left outside the station by the previous crew. Most of the spacewalk was spent setting up the rail.

"You owe us," Musabayev grumbled to mission controllers on the ground.

The duo also managed to install only one of two footrests needed for the repair job by the time they had to re-enter the space station Wednesday night.

The cosmonauts' oxygen tanks hold only enough air for approximately seven hours, putting a firm time limit on spacewalks.

The duo had planned to install a five-foot metal splint to reinforce a solar panel that was bent in a collision in June between the Mir and a cargo ship.

The damaged panel is the only one of the Mir's 10 solar panels that is not working. Russian space officials fear the panel could break loose and hit the station if it is not reinforced.

Four other spacewalks are scheduled during the first three weeks of April, beginning Monday when Musabayev and Budarin will attempt to stabilize the solar panel.

The other spacewalks, set for April 11, 16 and 21, will perform such jobs as replacing one of Mir's orientation engines, which keep the station aligned with the sun so that its the solar panels soak up the maximum amount of energy.

The third man on the Mir, U.S. astronaut Andrew Thomas, remained inside the station Wednesday, filming his colleagues' progress a job he will perform during the other spacewalks as well.

After a series of accidents and breakdowns last year, the 12-year-old Mir has been largely trouble-free in recent months.

Russian space officials hope to keep the station manned at least until next year, when a new international space station should be ready. Russia and the United States are among 15 countries involved in the project.

Written by Vladimir Isachenkov
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