Red-Faced Rescuers

IT TAKES ABOUT THREE HOURS IN A Soyuz capsule to get from the Mir space station to the former Soviet republic of Kazakstan, and that probably wasn't fast enough for cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev. Under his command, Mir experienced high-tech versions of the Biblical plagues--fire, drought, power outages, oxygen-generator failure and, most famously, collision with another spacecraft. Tsibliyev himself complained of heart palpitations. So it makes sense that when he and Aleksandr Lazutkin disengaged from Mir last Thursday, ending their six months in space, Tsibliyev reportedly said, ""Thank God,'' and when the spacecraft landed, his first word to the medics who pulled him out was ""Alive!''

Now the real action starts. This week the new Mir crew--led by one of Russia's most experienced cosmonauts, Anatoly Solovyev--is scheduled to embark on an unprecedented repair mission. They'll be trying to get the oxygen system back online and looking for collision damage, but they will also undertake an ""internal spacewalk'' to reconnect power cables severed after the collision in June. And back on Earth, Tsibliyev faces a hostile space agency, government and press in a country known to fine cosmonauts when they don't follow orders.

After the collision with a Progress resupply vehicle, Tsibliyev, Lazutkin and American astronaut Michael Foale felt the pressure on board begin to drop. Realizing that the air was escaping through the Spektr module, Foale raced for the airtight hatch that would seal it off--and found it blocked by cables connecting the Spektr's solar arrays to the Priroda and Kristall modules. Foale disconnected the cables, in the process losing about 40 percent of Mir's power. Over the next day the Spektr lost its atmosphere to the vacuum of space.

On Wednesday Solovyev and Pavel Vinogradov are set to don spacesuits and clamber into the transfer node at the cen- ter of all five of Mir's cylindrical modules. They'll seal it off from the rest of Mir and depressurize it. That's no big deal: the transfer node gets depressurized every time a Soyuz docks with it. But this time while Foale--still on board--waits in the Soyuz escape pod, Solovyev will open the Spektr. Inside he'll locate the nine or 10 power cables--some might be behind the inner door, some lying in the open--and plug them into a new hatch cover designed to allow the cables to pass through but keep an airtight seal. It's like ""trying to work on your car engine wearing very heavy winter clothing and winter gloves,'' says Dominic DelRosso, a subsystem manager for shuttle spacesuit assembly at the Johnson Space Center.

Despite days of training in the water tank at the Russian space base Star City--""We have a pretty good idea of what's required,'' Solovyev told NEWSWEEK before he took off--much could go wrong. Reconnecting the cables might not restore power, because one of the solar panels has considerable damage. The arrays might not be oriented toward the sun anymore, which would necessitate a future spacewalk to turn them manually. Since the inside of the Spektr was not designed as a spacesuit environment, its edges and corners haven't been rounded off. Spacesuits are rigid, bulky outfits made of tough fabrics like Kevlar and Nomex, but they can still rip. A torn suit probably wouldn't be fatal--all Solovyev would have to do is get out of the Spektr and into one of the pressurized parts of the station--but it would end the mission. And without the Spektr's electricity, Mir can't power up most of its science and can't run its oxygen generators (the crew has been relying on oxygen-producing chemical ""candles''). Solovyev will also hunt for the puncture, but even if the hole is patched, the Spektr will likely remain sealed.

Can-do, improvised engineering is what the Russians are best at in space. They've had the most experience at living in orbit, after all. But they may be less adept at handling problems on Earth. The Russian daily newspaper Segodnya says Tsibliyev caused the June collision when he failed to take into account 950 kilograms of waste on the Progress in his manual docking calculations. Russian President Boris Yeltsin said last week that the accident was the result of ""human error,'' and bosses at mission control are saying much the same thing.

Russian officials insist there won't be a witch hunt. But Tsibliyev and Lazutkin now have two weeks of debriefing to look forward to. Excuses aren't allowed; in 1995 two cosmonauts refused to do a sixth, unscheduled spacewalk to fix the Spektr's recalcitrant solar array, and the Russian space agency fined them $10,000 each--about half their pay for the mission. The cosmonauts went to court to get their money back.

These days the Russians could use the cash. It'll cost between $2 million and $2.5 million to fix the collision damage. Mir's lousy year has damaged more than the station; the collision with Progress punched a hole in the pride of the Russian space program. That's why Solovyev's repair mission is so important. When it comes to repairing damage, Moscow does not believe in tears.