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`Silence was fantastic’ aboard Mir after mishap

SHARE `Silence was fantastic’ aboard Mir after mishap

More than anything, astronaut Michael Foale remembers the silence each time the ruptured Mir space station slipped around the dark side of the Earth.

A collision with a cargo ship last June 25 had left Mir without power, and so all the clattering fans and other equipment had hushed to a halt. As the world worried and wondered, Foale savored the stillness."Silence was fantastic," he told The Associated Press. "I had actually sort of wanted to experience that, and I got to experience that in spades."

Foale is astonished by his vivid recollections of that harrowing day - and everything else about his bumpy 4 1/2-month Mir ride.

"It's almost like I'm right there," he said. "I can almost imagine where the cables are in my face."

For one sense, that of smell, the 41-year-old astrophysicist need not rely on memory. He inadvertently brought back L'Essence de Mir inside two Ziploc bags that had held family photos and a novel.

"When I open those up, the smell of Mir comes out," he said. "It's like an old library, but an old library where old people live maybe. A very old house where Grandma, Great-Grandma live."

Foale moved into Russia's old orbital home in May 1997, three months after a serious fire had struck. No one imagined things could get worse. They could.

On June 25, 1997, a trash-filled cargo ship veered off course during a docking test and rammed the Spektr laboratory module. A solar panel was damaged beyond repair. More immediately worrisome, the module was punctured.

As air seeped out small, hidden holes, Foale and cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin swiftly disconnected the cables snaking through the hatch and, within 10 minutes, had sealed off the depressurizing lab. Commander Vasily Tsibliyev, meanwhile, was on the radio with Russia's Mission Control, which insisted all three remain on board despite flight rules dictating they should flee in the attached Soyuz capsule.

Afraid they might suffocate from the exhaled carbon dioxide pooling around them in the stagnant air, Tsibliyev ordered his crew to find a place where they could watch one another whenever Mir flew into darkness.

They gathered before a window; by then, four or five hours had passed since the crash. The aurora australis, or southern lights, glittered below, and small meteorites flashed in the distance.

Foale tried to cheer up his "shell-shocked" commander, who was at the controls when the cargo ship crashed and feared he'd be blamed. (He was.)

"This is incredibly beautiful, Vasily," Foale said, gazing outside. "I know this has been a terrible day, but I'll always remember this particular moment."

"Yes, yes," Tsibliyev replied. "It's been a terrible day."

Foale laughed as he recalled the conversation in his top-floor office at Johnson Space Center, where he serves as assistant technical director.

"It's things like that that really come back to me strong," he said.

Unlike Mir's other problems - fire, computer breakdowns, toxic leaks - the collision provided little if any technical benefit to the international station, Foale said. What it did, he noted, was underscore the need to follow rules.