Mir: For all mankind?

The very name Mir seems to conjure images of disaster, and words like beleaguered and trouble-torn were usually associated with it, for this was the only way that this outstanding space station was ever mentioned in the popular news programs and newspapers. This image was reinforced in popular culture by Mir’s depiction in movies such as “Armageddon”. The truth, of course, was somewhat different; the facts are simple, Mir was in orbit for 15 years, and played host to over 100 cosmo­nauts and astronauts. It is true that in later years it required more maintenance than in its earlier years, most things do, but its legacy will stand for many years to come. The incidents that led to Mir’s unfortunate reputation are described in Chapter 10.

The name Mir is variously translated, but can mean “peace’’, “community”, or “new world’’; but perhaps most significant was the fact that it had a name at all, as opposed to being referred to as “Salyut 8’’. However, it soon became clear that this station was meant to be a new beginning for Soviet space stations, with a long life planned for it. Mir would embody everything that had been learned previously, and hence with a new beginning came a new name. It did not hurt that the new name would strike a welcome cord with the new General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Unusually, Mir was launched whilst its predecessor Salyut 7 was still in orbit, raising speculation that some kind of joint operations were intended, and maybe even a docking between the two. Its launch in February 1986, barely a month after the hammer blow of the Challenger launch disaster, highlighted the Soviet Union’s relentless presence in space, and seemed to press home, cruelly, its continued progress in long-term space flight.

Mir was different from the earlier Salyut stations in an important way. Its most important addition was the four docking ports arranged around the radial axis of the front end. These would allow the station to be expanded with science modules. This, in turn, meant that the core module or base block, as it was known, had more space; it was primarily a habitat module for the two or three permanent crew. The stations

Mir: For all mankind?

Soyuz-T 15 crew

solar panels were larger than those on Salyut 7, and more panels were to be fitted shortly by spacewalking cosmonauts. The computers on board Mir were sufficiently advanced as to allow the crew more time for scientific activities; in fact, the whole station’s design reflected the fact that this station was meant to last longer than any of its predecessors.

Mir was to be activated by the crew of Soyuz-T 15, who were launched just a month after Mir was established in orbit. Two experienced cosmonauts, commander Leonid Kizim and engineer Vladimir Solovyov, were selected to not only carry out the first mission on Mir, but also to visit Salyut 7 and finish the outstanding experi­ments on that station. Once they had rendezvoused and docked with Mir, the crew found a much roomier cabin than the previous Salyut stations, which both crew­members had spent considerable time aboard. Although the physical dimensions of Mir’s base block were about the same as previous stations, the interior was much less cluttered—a reflection of the plan to add modules later for scientific research. For the first time the crew had their own individual cabins, with sleeping bag, window, and storage for personal items. The bathroom offered some privacy, and a kind of wash basin, and the table at which the crew would eat was a great improvement over earlier facilities. In all, Mir was designed with long-duration space flight in mind, and offered a level of comfort not seen on a space station since Skylab. The lessons learnt from previous station operations was also evident in the plan for the working day; it would follow a more usual five days a week schedule—with a normal working day’s dura­tion and with time of in the evening for the crew to relax or pursue their own interests. The crews were also left free to determine their own schedules for the day; a marked difference from NASA’s “plan every minute’’ approach to space flight. The Russians

seemed to understand that long-duration missions were like running a marathon; the crew had to pace themselves to keep their efficiency levels up as well as their spirits.

Kizim and Solovyov spent the next several days preparing Mir for its mission; they unpacked an already docked Progress, and generally readied Mir for long-term space flight. One Progress left and another arrived to continue the process of activation, and to ensure that Mir’s propellant supplies were topped up. As the beginning of May approached, the crew put Mir back into an autonomous operating mode; they were leaving, but not for good, they were going to Salyut 7. Transfer between two orbiting space stations had never been achieved before, or since. On 5 May 1986 Soyuz-T 15 undocked from Mir to begin the one-day transfer to Salyut 7, docking with the veteran station was easily achieved, and in fact the whole process was made to look routine. The plan was to activate Salyut 7 once more, and finish off the remaining experiments on board the station. Toward the end of the month, the crew ventured outside Salyut 7 for the first of two spacewalks to retrieve a number of external experiments and to test the deployment mechanism for a structure that would eventually be built on Mir. By the end of June the crew was ready to return Salyut 7 to solo flight, and take as much equipment back to Mir as they could pack into the orbital module of their Soyuz; they had been on board Salyut 7 for 50 days. After a trouble-free return trip to Mir, the crew settled into a routine once more, concentrating on installing the equipment transferred from Salyut 7, and on their exercise regimes in preparation for the return to Earth. It had been assumed that the crew would hand over in orbit to the next, but apparently the next crew were not yet ready, and in truth Kizim and Solovyov had run out of things to do. On 16 July they landed after an historic and successful mission that had seen them occupy two space stations for a total of 125 days.

In fact it was some time before Mir was to be occupied again. The first expansion module for Mir, called Kvant, had suffered a few delays as it was modified from its original design as an adjunct to Salyut 7. There had also been delays with the crew, originally scheduled to consist of Vladimir Titov and Aleksandr Serebrov, when Serebrov failed a medical exam they had to be replaced by their back-ups Yuri Romanenko and Aleksandr Laveikin. Titov did not seem to be a lucky man; so far his career had consisted of a failed docking attempt with Salyut 7, and the launch pad abort, and, now he had been removed from a mission through no fault of his own. Many of his cosmonaut colleagues wondered if he was cursed.

When the crew did launch on 6 February 1987, it did so on board an upgraded Soyuz design with features specifically designed for the new orbital outpost. The Soyuz-TM was a necessary upgrade to the existing Soyuz-T craft because of the new rendezvous system used by Mir called Kurs. This new system basically allowed the Soyuz to dock automatically without Mir having to change its own orientation; a great saving of the limited maneuvring fuel available on the station. In addition a new window had been added to the orbital module to allow a crewmember to directly view the upcoming docking, and the interior of both modules had been slimmed down to save weight and give the crew more space.

Yuri Romanenko and Aleksandr Laveikin arrived at the station on 7 February 1987, docking with Mir’s front port because a Progress cargo craft was already at the

Mir: For all mankind?

Mir base block

rear port. It took some time for Laveikin to adapt to life in space; it was his first flight, and he said that it took the best part of a month to feel comfortable in orbit. Romanenko had no such difficulties, he had flown before, spending three months on Salyut 6, and adapted readily to the new station. Once the new crew had settled in they waited for the new module to be launched.

The first laboratory module, Kvant, was launched on 31 March 1987. As it had no propulsion system of its own, it was mated to a modified TKS serving as a tug. The tug was to deliver Kvant to its automatic docking with the rear port of Mir, its permanent home. Kvant made its first docking attempt on 5 April, but something went wrong and the module sailed past the station, with a somewhat concerned crew watching it pass Mir’s portholes. A second attempt a few days later achieved only a soft docking; when the docking probe was retracted the latches failed to lock. It was decided to get the crew to go outside and have a look. So on 11 April they ventured out and found a cloth bag full of hygiene towels that had somehow escaped from the previous Progress craft—it had blocked the hard docking, which was achieved successfully once this object was removed. The crew entered Kvant for the first time on 12 April for an initial inspection. The interior consisted mainly of equipment for an electrophoresis system for processing biological materials, and there was also substantial equipment for carrying out astrophysics observations. In addition to the experimentation equipment, there were additional devices to help with the opera­tion of the station in general. Elektron took water (whether reclaimed vapor, waste water, or urine) and electrolyzed it into oxygen and hydrogen—the oxygen for the life support system and the hydrogen vented into space. Another very important piece of operational equipment were the stations gyrodynes; these spinning flywheels were used to rotate the station as required, rather than using valuable propellant via the thrusters. The future expansion of Mir had originally been planned around the use of more Kvant sized modules, but at some point it had been decided to concentrate on modules more than twice the size at around 20 tonnes each, based on the TKS design.