[FPSPACE] 1988 Mir emergency disclosed

Bart Hendrickx bhen at telenet.be
Thu Apr 19 18:24:43 EDT 2012

The latest issue of "Novosti kosmonavtiki" carries an interview with former
cosmonaut Vladimir Titov. In the interview Titov describes a hitherto
undisclosed emergency that arose aboard Mir in March 1988 during his
year-long mission with Musa Manarov.  The problems began after Mission
Control had sent commands to change the orientation of the station. The crew
noticed something was amiss when the Sun showed up in a porthole where it
wasn't supposed to be visible. It turned out that the solar panels were no
longer facing the Sun and the station's batteries were slowly draining. When
the crew reported they were losing power and asked to check the orientation,
Mission Control responded everything was fine. They got the same response
during the following orbit, Mission Control saying the reorientation would
take a while. Unknown to mission controllers, they had sent an erroneous
command to the station.


After this pass there were five orbits where the station didn't pass over
Soviet territory and communications with Mission Control were impossible.
When they entered the Earth's shadow over the Indian Ocean, the crew got a
"minimal voltage" alarm and critical systems began shutting down. The
station went dark and  on board it was "dead silent", as Titov describes it.
As a result of the power loss, the magnetic suspension system of the Kvant
module's control moment gyros ("gyrodines") no longer worked, causing the
rapidly rotating gyros to come into contact with their housing as they began
despinning. This caused some loud bangs, which had the crew very worried.
Specialists would later tell them that the gyros could have "ripped the
station to pieces" and that they had been very lucky.


Subsequently, the crew tried to contact Mission Control with the radio
systems of Soyuz, but there was no response. Titov then slowly improved the
station's orientation by activating the Soyuz thrusters, with Manarov
looking out one of Mir's portholes and passing on the necessary commands.
This gave them enough power for lights and ventilators to turn on again.
However, the station's computers were down and the Elektron oxygen
generation system had failed, forcing the crew to use solid-fuel oxygen
generators ("candles") for about two months. Many other systems had broken
down as well because of the power failure and although some spare parts were
available aboard Mir many had to be delivered by Progress cargo vehicles.
Apparently, things didn't return to normal until the launch of the
Soviet-Bulgarian visiting crew in June 1988. 


One wonders if the lessons learned from this emergency situation were passed
on to later Mir crews. A similar power failure occurred aboard Mir during
the Euromir-94 mission in October 1994  and the crew didn't initially
contact Mission Control via Soyuz or take the initiative to use the Soyuz
thrusters to restore orientation. When the same scenario repeated itself
after the Progress collision in 1997, it was by all accounts Michael Foale
and not Tsibliyev or Lazutkin who came up with the idea of activating the
Soyuz thrusters.


It has taken almost twenty-five years for this story to come to light and
we're talking about a mission that took place in the early years of
"glasnost". How many more such revelations can we expect? Is this just the
tip of the iceberg?


Bart Hendrickx



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