News

17 September 1997

TEXT: ANALYST REVIEWS OPTIONS OF CONTINUING MIR-SHUTTLE PROGRAM

(Sees risk from aging Mir, benefit from space cooperation) (4840)



Washington -- Marcia Smith, a specialist in aerospace and
telecommunications policy for the Library of Congress, addressed the
House Committee on Science September 19 and questioned whether the
risks U.S. astronauts will face on their upcoming missions on Russia's
aging Mir spacecraft are worth the political and scientific benefits.


While taking no specific stance herself, Smith offered the Committee
three options to consider: to continue the Shuttle-Mir program as
planned; to complete the planned Shuttle-Mir dockings, but not leave
the U.S. astronauts on board Mir; or to terminate the program
entirely.


The first option, which she noted NASA favors, would have U.S.
astronaut David Wolf remain on Mir following the next Shuttle-Mir
launch, slated for September 25. "This option would reflect a desire
to be a 'good partner' (to Russia) and to gain additional experience
that could be relevant to the ISS (International Space Station)," she
commented.


However, "it also poses the greatest risks to two NASA astronauts
(Wolf and his replacement), both because of the inherent risk of human
spaceflight and the special risks associated with Mir," she said.


The most important risk Smith cited is Mir's age, but there are a
number of other difficulties, as well, as proven by the spacecraft's
well-documented problems this year: an on-board fire in February and
the June 25 collision with the Progress M-34 cargo craft.


Nonetheless, the Russians are able to "salvage situations that
appeared to be unsalvageable time and time again," Smith said. This
makes it "difficult not to be impressed by the versatility, ingenuity,
resourcefulness, and determination of Cosmonaut crews."


On the other hand, the option to terminate the program entirely
"likely would cool relationships considerably" between the United
States and Russia "since Mir is so dependent on the shuttle for cargo
transport," Smith argued, adding that "the overall relationship
between NASA and its Russian counterparts in the context of the ISS
program could be damaged."


Following is the text of Smith's House testimony:



(begin text)



Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here
to testify about the Shuttle-Mir program. You asked that I focus my
testimony on the original goals of the program, what has been
accomplished (including accomplishments that may not have been
anticipated), and policy options regarding the future of the program.


Original Goals



The Shuttle-Mir program was initiated by President Bush in 1992.
Although joint human spaceflight missions to follow the successful
1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project had been discussed for many years, Cold
War issues prevented the two countries from finalizing any such
arrangement. Once the Cold War ended, Presidents Bush and Yeltsin
chose space cooperation as one of the areas in which to demonstrate
the new relationship between former adversaries.


The agreement called for a Russian cosmonaut to fly on the U.S. space
shuttle, an American astronaut to visit Russia's Mir space station for
three months, and a docking between the shuttle and Mir that would
include the exchange of Mir crew members. When the agreement was
announced, the primary reason identified for the visit of an American
astronaut to Mir was science, particularly life science. Engineering
and operational objectives also were mentioned. As a symbol of the end
of the Cold War, the Shuttle-Mir program also has had important
political significance from the beginning.


In 1993, Vice President Gore and Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin
expanded the Shuttle-Mir program, making it Phase I of space station
cooperation between the United States and Russia. Phases II and III
involve adding Russia to the partnership of countries (United States,
Japan, Canada, and 10 European countries) building the new
International Space Station (ISS).


The Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission agreed to add "as many as" nine more
shuttle flights (for a total of up to 10) and an additional 21 months
of U.S. astronaut time on Mir (for a total of 24 months). Another
cosmonaut flight on the space shuttle and a rendezvous (but not
docking) between the shuttle and Mir were also added. NASA signed an
interim contract with the Russian Space Agency in 1994 implementing
this agreement. At that time, NASA stated that the additional 21
months on Mir would give a "new generation of American astronauts and
scientists their first experience with long-duration space flight."
Primarily for budgetary reasons, NASA decided to conduct seven, rather
than 10, Shuttle-Mir docking missions. Objectives for the docking
missions were to give fundamental experience in joint operations: risk
reduction, command and control, docking the shuttle with large
structures in space, performing technology experiments, and executing
a joint research program. Overall, the Shuttle-Mir program's purpose
was identified as reducing risk in the ISS program by gaining
experience in conducting joint operations and programs; demonstrating
technologies to be used for ISS; studying and developing
interoperability where possible; and conducting research in space
earlier than otherwise would be possible.


In 1996, the Shuttle-Mir program was expanded again. In return for
Russia promising to deliver two modules for ISS (the FGB module and
the Service Module) on time and to build a cargo version of the FGB
(called the Logistics Transfer Vehicle), NASA agreed inter alia to add
two more Shuttle-Mir docking missions to help Russia keep Mir
operational longer than Russia originally had planned. The two sides
also agreed to increase the number of months U.S. crews would spend on
Mir.


Accomplishments



NASA seems already to have achieved most of the objectives set out for
the Shuttle-Mir program. Five NASA astronauts (Thagard, Lucid, Blaha,
Linenger, and Foale) have accumulated 22 months of experience on Mir.
Scientific experiments have been conducted, relationships between
Russian and American space personnel have grown, the Shuttle has
docked with Mir six times (a seventh is scheduled for later this
month), and operational knowledge of living and working on a space
station has been gained that could be important for the ISS program.


While there are several rationales for the Shuttle-Mir program
overall, science is mentioned prominently as the reason for long
duration stays on Mir. NASA developed a number of life sciences and
materials processing experiments that were incorporated into Spektr
and Priroda, the final two modules that became part of the Mir complex
in 1995 and 1996 respectively. Generally, the life sciences
experiments are in Spektr and materials processing experiments are in
Priroda.


Spektr arrived at Mir several months later than expected. Since it
contained the experiments that Dr. Norman Thagard, the first American
on Mir, had intended to conduct, his research program was sharply
limited. Spektr docked with Mir in June 1995, only a month before the
end of Dr. Thagard's visit. Dr. Shannon Lucid, the second American on
Mir, was to work both with the experiments on Spektr and with those on
Priroda. Like Spektr, however, Priroda arrived late, delaying
initiation of those experiments. Perhaps because the modules were
late, both Lucid and Thagard commented at the end of their visits that
they could have done more science. Thagard pointed to the importance
of keeping busy for maintaining morale. Both modules were fully
operational to support the missions of the next three NASA astronauts
-- John Blaha, Jerry Linenger, and Mike Foale -- who conducted a
variety of experiments as planned.


The June 25, 1997 collision between the Progress M-34 cargo craft and
Mir, which punctured Spektr and required that Priroda and other Mir
modules be powered down, severely limited the amount of science that
could be performed. While the reconnection of power cables from Spektr
to the rest of the station at the end of August has restored some
capabilities, others appear permanently lost. Though the Russians have
not ruled out the future repair of Spektr, NASA is skeptical that any
such repair could be certified to ensure that another depressurization
would not occur. Thus, it appears that the scientific equipment in
Spektr is lost. Several major pieces of equipment for life sciences
experiments are located there, including a centrifuge, a large freezer
(two smaller freezers are in Priroda), a bicycle ergometer, a
cardiovascular monitor, and a gas analyzer. NASA hopes to replace some
of this equipment on future Progress or shuttle missions, but for the
moment, U.S. scientific research will be limited to a greenhouse and
the experiments in Priroda. Priroda was powered down after the June 25
collision, but the equipment and experiments located there are not
thought to have been affected by the collision. Power disruptions
caused by the repeated computer outages that temporarily cause the
solar arrays to lose their orientation to the Sun could complicate
conduct of some of those experiments, however. Life science
experiments that require only pre- and post-flight measurements (such
as bone density) are unaffected by the situation on Mir.


NASA asserts that its next astronaut to visit Mir, David Wolf, will be
able to complete 80-90 percent of his science program. Apparently that
means that 80-90 percent of the time he was to have spent performing
science still will be devoted to that task. NASA says that
approximately 50% of its experimental equipment was in Spektr, so
clearly the exact experiments he will conduct will change since those
are not accessible.


One of the perhaps unanticipated accomplishments of the science
experiments on Mir has been NASA learning that the training it needs
to give its crews is different for working on a space station than on
a shuttle. NASA has said it needs to focus more on building generic
skills rather than focusing on performance of specific tasks, for
example.


Closer working relationships have developed between NASA personnel and
their Russian counterparts. Though improvements clearly need to be
made in terms of communications between the two sides, the two
countries are much further along in coping with technical and cultural
differences that could be important in the ISS era than if there had
been no Shuttle-Mir program.


The Shuttle-Mir dockings should be valuable experience for ISS since
the Shuttle previously had never docked with any such massive object
in orbit. The two sides also have conducted joint spacewalks, or EVAs
(extravehicular activity). Two have involved Americans joining in
Russian EVAs from Mir. A Russian will participate in a U.S. EVA on the
upcoming Shuttle-Mir flight later this month. Cross-training in each
other's EVA suits and learning to work together on EVA is expected to
be important for the ISS, which requires a large number of spacewalks
for assembly and maintenance (approximately 1520 hours during the
assembly period). NASA also has gained experience in the day-to-day
issues of life aboard a space station such as storage and the need to
keep an inventory of what equipment is located where.


Though the circumstances certainly were less than ideal, NASA obtained
the "bonus" of having two crew members, Linenger and Foale, experience
near catastrophic accidents aboard Mir -- a fire in February
(described below) and the collision in June. Those emergencies, as
undesirable as they were, may have had a positive aspect in terms of
demonstrating how the space crews work together in an emergency, how
the space and ground crews interact under tense circumstances, and
intensified interaction between Russian and American personnel.


Issues



To a large extent, NASA has met the objectives set out for the
Shuttle-Mir program already. Since approximately half of NASA's
experiments are no longer accessible because they are in Spektr, the
question arises as to the value of having additional astronauts remain
on Mir. Other witnesses today will discuss the specific issue of Mir
safety, which is of great interest to this committee. Another factor
is the overall risks involved in any human spaceflight mission
compared with the value of what is being accomplished.


There are two types of risk involved in visits to Mir -- the risks
inherent in any human spaceflight mission, and special risks
associated with Mir. The latter involve the age of some of the Mir's
components, and the strain under which the Russian space industry is
operating due to Russia's economic situation.


The 10 Americans and 4 Russians who have died as a result of
spaceflights indelibly underscore the risks experienced whenever
humans venture into space. Despite these risks, the United States and
Russia have conducted human spaceflight programs, since 1961. Twenty
three other countries have accepted invitations to send
representatives into space on American or Russian missions. Clearly
many governments and their citizens are willing to accept certain
levels of risk in order to achieve a particular end, whether it is a
desire to explore, a quest for scientific knowledge, or national
prestige, for example. The astronauts and cosmonauts who fly into
space accept those risks as well.


Mir also presents special risks because portions of it are aging. The
original core module has been in orbit since 1986. Kvant (often called
Kvant-1 in the West) was added in 1987, Kvant-2 in 1989, and Kristall
in 1990. As noted, Spektr and Priroda are more recent additions (1995
and 1996 respectively). Most of the life support and control equipment
is in the older modules, including the main computer, oxygen
generation and carbon dioxide removal systems, and gyrodynes for
controlling the space station's correct orientation ("attitude") in
space. In a very real sense, Mir has become a technological experiment
itself. How its systems and materials deteriorate over time can
provide important information for ISS and future spacecraft that will
be exposed to the space environment for many years. The question is
how much risk that adds for crews living on Mir.


Further risks in the Mir program may arise because of Russia's
economic situation and the loss of skilled space workers to more
profitable professions. The effect of lower government funding for the
Mir program has been apparent for several years, exemplified by the
reduction in frequency of Progress resupply flights to the space
station and the repeated need to extend the duration of Mir crews
because launch vehicles are not available to launch their
replacements. The commander of the Mir crew that returned in August,
Vasily Tsiblyev, blamed the Russian economy for many of the problems
during his trouble-plagued visit to Mir: "The cause lies with problems
on Earth. It's connected with the economy, with our affairs in
general. Even the equipment needed to live aboard the station and that
we requested to be sent ... they just don't exist." (Washington Post,
August 17, 1997, A 21.)


These risks are all important to consider when deciding whether to
leave Americans on Mir. It should also be borne in mind, however, that
the picture may not be as bleak as what is being portrayed in the
media. While Mir is experiencing more anomalies than in the past, as
would be expected with an aging system, the cosmonauts have extensive
experience in space station repairs. Mir is Russia's seventh
successful space station since 1971. Earlier models also have
encountered major problems that cosmonauts have repaired. The reports
CRS has prepared for Congress over the years about the Soviet (and now
Russian) space program are full of examples. I have studied the
Russian space station program for 22 years. After seeing them salvage
situations that appeared unsalvageable time and time again, it is
difficult not to be impressed by the versatility, ingenuity,
resourcefulness, and determination of cosmonaut crews.


So the "routine" anomalies they experience, set against a backdrop of
26 years of space station experience, seem less daunting. That is not
to diminish the reality that the risks probably are higher today than
11 years ago when the Mir core module was new. So it is not a matter
of rejecting concerns about Mir's safety, but more a matter of keeping
the newspaper headlines in perspective. As long as a Soyuz spacecraft
is available for emergency return, aging systems alone would not seem
to pose immediately life-threatening risks.


Life-threatening risks, such as those from fire or depressurization,
seem more related to the risks inherent in any human spaceflight. Mir
has experienced both in 1997. The fundamental cause of the February 23
fire, created when the crew activated a lithium percolate device (an
"oxygen candle") to generate more oxygen, appears elusive. The
Russians apparently have been unable to repeat the failure on the
ground. Perhaps the most sobering (and instructive) aspect of the fire
was the fact that it blocked the escape route to one of the two Soyuz
spacecraft. Six people were aboard Mir at the time. Each Soyuz can
accommodate three. Three crew members could have escaped using the
Soyuz docked at the forward end of the station, but access to the
second Soyuz, docked at the aft end, was blocked by the fire itself.
Another important issue raised by the fire is communications problems
between NASA and its Russian counterparts. NASA was not notified about
the fire until several hours after it occurred, and there have been
different accounts of exactly what happened. For instance, based on
information from the Russians, NASA reported that the fire lasted 90
seconds and fire extinguishers were used to douse the flame. Later,
NASA astronaut Linenger, who was aboard at the time, disclosed that it
lasted 14 minutes and the fire extinguishers were ineffective. They
were used instead to cool the walls of the station to prevent
burn-through while the fire burned itself out. No one was injured.


As for the collision that caused the depressurization of the Spektr
module (mentioned above), the formal investigation of its cause is not
complete. President Yeltsin recently instructed the commission
investigating the incident to report by October 1.


Apart from these unique accidents, other problems have been
encountered this year. Perhaps the most important, for Mir operations
and in some cases for ISS, include:


Repeated Computer Failures. The main computer on Mir has failed
several times this year. Each time, the station loses its proper
orientation to the Sun and hence loses electrical power until the
solar arrays again can be correctly pointed. This requires systems to
be powered down, disrupting the crew's work and living routines and
potentially ruining scientific experiments that must be operated
without interruption for long periods.


Carbon Dioxide Removal Problems. The August 29, 1997 report by the
NASA Inspector General notes that one of the NASA astronauts described
how it was possible to tell when carbon dioxide concentrations were
too high because "it was a little harder to think. It was easier to
make mistakes." (page 6) Clearly this situation is not desirable under
any circumstances, but could be particularly dangerous if an emergency
occurred while the crew was affected in this manner.


Soyuz Landing Engine Failure. The failure of the usually reliable
Soyuz landing engines during the return of the Tsiblyev-Lazutkin crew
in August is troubling both for Mir operations and for ISS. Commander
Tsiblyev said that if someone had been sitting in the third seat in
the Soyuz (which was vacant during this particular landing because of
a change of plans just weeks before), he could have been seriously
injured. Since Soyuz not only is the emergency return vehicle for
American astronauts on Mir, but also the lifeboat for ISS, identifying
and rectifying the cause of this failure is quite important. (Clearly
it is important for the Russians, too, since their crews and other
visiting astronauts use Soyuz for their trips to and from Mir.)
Whether this is an isolated failure, or the result of lower quality
control by the manufacturer, is an important issue.


Docking Problems. Problems have been experienced over the past several
years with both the manual and automatic systems for docking Soyuz and
Progress with Mir. Not only do these problems need to be rectified for
Mir operations, but both spacecraft also will be used for ISS. A
reliable system is needed.


These problems do present risks. Added to the risks inherently
associated with human spaceflight, questions arise about whether the
goals to be accomplished by NASA astronauts remaining on Mir are worth
the risks. Since NASA already has met most of the objectives of the
Shuttle-Mir program and the science that can be conducted is limited
by the loss of the equipment in Spektr, justifying two more flights of
NASA astronauts on Mir may be difficult.


NASA argues that the last two long duration visits to Mir will add to
their knowledge base about living and working aboard space stations,
allow them to conduct more science with the equipment they can still
access, and train more astronauts in participating in Russian EVAs.
Others question whether the added value of yet another joint EVA, or
another few months of observing system malfunctions on Mir, or
conducting experiments with the remaining functional NASA equipment
aboard Mir, is worthwhile.


NASA also argues that the United States needs to fulfill its
obligations to its partners and not be a "fair weather friend." In
that context, it is important to remember that the last two
Shuttle-Mir dockings (scheduled for January and May) and most of the
time accounted for by the last two astronaut visits to Mir were agreed
to in 1996. In exchange, Russia made three promises -- to keep the FGB
module and the Service Module on schedule, and to build a new cargo
version of the FGB. Only one of these has been kept (the Russians
could have delivered the FGB on its original schedule, though the
schedule slipped because they could not meet the Service Module's
schedule). This demonstrates that there is flexibility in meeting
partner obligations.


Policy Options



The following policy options are available as Congress debates the
merits of leaving additional astronauts on Mir:


-- Continue with the program as planned. NASA's current choice, this
option would see David Wolf remain on Mir following the next
Shuttle-Mir mission scheduled for launch on September 25. Another
astronaut would replace him in January for the final U.S. flight to
Mir. This option would reflect a desire to be a "good partner" and to
gain additional experience that could be relevant to the ISS.
Additional science also would be conducted, though less than
originally planned because of the loss of the equipment in Spektr.
This option could help to solidify relationships between the two
countries in joint spaceflight. It also poses the greatest risk to two
NASA astronauts, both because of the inherent risk of human
spaceflight and the special risks associated with Mir.


-- Complete the planned Shuttle-Mir dockings, but do not leave
astronauts on Mir. This option could be chosen if a decision was made
that Mir is not sufficiently safe, or that while it may be safe, the
added value of having two more long duration missions on Mir is not
worth the other risks inherent in human spaceflight missions. The
United States could argue that the more important aspect of the
Shuttle-Mir program for the Russians is the shuttle docking missions,
since the shuttle takes cargo to and from Mir. The United States would
be fulfilling that part of its pledge. Since the Russians have not
fulfilled their end of the deal, there should be minimal repercussions
if the United States similarly did not complete all that it promised,
especially since it was the shuttle dockings, not the long duration
astronaut visits, that were of prime importance.


-- Terminate the program entirely. In addition to the reasons stated
above as to why the United States might choose not to leave two more
astronauts on Mir, it could argue that this next Shuttle-Mir mission
completes the agreement as signed in 1994. This will be the 7th and
last of those missions. Apart from safety issues, since the Russians
have not fulfilled their commitments under the 1996 extension, it
could be argued that the United States has no obligation to fly the
two additional shuttle missions. This option likely would cool
relationships considerably between the two countries since Mir is so
dependent on the shuttle for cargo transport. Russia could be faced
with a choice between ending Mir operations or redirecting money from
the ISS program to provide the Progress spacecraft and associated
launch vehicles that would be needed to replace the Shuttle flights.
The overall relationship between NASA and its Russian counterparts in
the context of the ISS program could be damaged.


While others add the possibility of having a hiatus in flights while
the United States monitors the situation on Mir, it is unclear as to
whether the Russians would be motivated to accept such a condition. It
seems unlikely that Mir's condition will improve with time in any
case.


Conclusion



Despite the many media reports of Mir's imminent demise, the space
station continues to function in the hands of its patient, competent
crew. Other witnesses here today are addressing the explicit question
of whether Mir is safe from a systematic safety and reliability
analysis standpoint. Apart from that type of analysis is the more
subjective judgment of whether the science and operational tasks to be
conducted by two more astronauts justifies exposing them to the risks
associated with long duration stays on Mir. The original primary
justification for the long duration visits of U.S. astronauts to Mir
was to conduct science, particularly life science. Many of NASA's
science experiments (especially those for life sciences) are inside
the unusable Spektr module.


Astronaut Jerry Linenger, who recently returned from Mir, was quoted
last week as commenting that the purpose of occupying Mir has become
"survival for survival's sake" (Washington Post, September 9, 1997,
A15). The question becomes whether that is sufficient cause for
astronauts to remain on Mir.


BIOGRAPHY



MARCIA S. SMITH



Marcia Smith is a Specialist in Aerospace and Telecommunications
Policy for the Science Policy Research Division of the Congressional
Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. She has been
at CRS since 1975, serving as a policy analyst for the Members and
committees of the U.S. Congress on matters concerning U.S. and foreign
military and civilian space activities, and on telecommunications
issues (and formerly on nuclear energy). She was Section Head for
Space and Defense Technologies from 1987-1991, and Section Head for
Energy, Aerospace and Transportation Technologies from 1984-1985.


From 1985-1986, Ms. Smith took a leave of absence to serve as
Executive Director of the U.S. National Commission on Space. The
Commission, created by Congress and its members appointed by the
President, developed long-term (50 year) goals for the civilian space
program under the chairmanship of (the late) former NASA Administrator
Thomas Paine. The Commission published its results in the report
Pioneering the Space Frontier.


A graduate of Syracuse University, Ms. Smith is the author or coauthor
of more than 160 reports and articles on space, nuclear energy, and
telecommunications. Previously she worked in the Washington office of
the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.


Ms. Smith is a Trustee of the International Academy of Astronautics
(and co-chairs the Space Activities and Society Committee and is a
member of the International Space Policies and Plans Committee and the
Scientific-Legal Liaison Committee). She was a member of the Committee
on Human Exploration (CHEX) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences'
Space Studies Board (1992-93, 1996-97). She is a Fellow of the
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). She serves
on AIAA's Ethical Conduct Panel, and the International Activities
Committee; was a member of the International Space Year Committee
(1989-1992), the Public Policy Committee (1982-1989) and the Space
Systems Technical Committee (1986-1989); was an ALAA Distinguished
Lecturer (1983-1988); and was a member of the Council of AIAA's
National Capital Section (1994-1996).


She is a member of the Kettering Group of space observers. She is a
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. She is a member of the
Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL)
and of the Association of U.S. Members of the IISL. She was a founder
of Women in Aerospace, was its President (1987) and member of its
Board of Directors (1984-1990), and is an Emeritus Member. She was
President of the American Astronautical Society (1985-1986), on its
Board of Directors (1982-1985), and Executive Committee (1982-1987,
1988-1989).


She is a Life Member of the New York Academy of Sciences and the
Washington Academy of Sciences (Board of Directors, 1988-1989). She is
a member of Sigma Xi (the honorary scientific research society). Ms.
Smith serves on the editorial boards of the journals Space Policy and
Space Forum and is a contributing editor for the Smithsonian
Institution's Air & Space magazine. She is listed in several "Who's
Who" directories, including Who's Who in the World, Who's Who of
American Women, and American Men and Women of Science.


Ms. Smith is the daughter of Sherman K. and (the late) Shirley Smith.
Born on February 22, 1951, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, she now
resides in Arlington, Virginia.


(End text)