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Invaluable Lessons From Russian Space Station

Move over John Glenn. Here comes Valeriy Ryumin. The veteran cosmonaut is catching the early June space shuttle to the Mir space station. After 18 years on the sidelines, he is heading for one last fling in orbit.

Like Senator Glenn's, Dr. Ryumin's veteran status gives special purpose to his mission. He has been intimately involved with every space station the Russians have orbited. That includes logging 362 days in space over three missions, including two extended stays on the Salyut 6 station that preceded Mir. He now is the Russian manager of the shuttle-Mir program. Both the Russian Space Agency and NASA bought his claim to being the best qualified expert to make a final detailed inspection of the long-playing space station.

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Ryumin told a press conference last January he has concluded that "the older the station is, the better it is." He added, "I've decided to fly up there and make sure that's true."

Ryumin's comment sums up the role Mir has played in the development of human space flight. Built to be flexible and adaptable, Mir has continuously evolved as an orbiting laboratory. It has survived mishaps such as last year's fire and collision that probably would have crippled a less flexible facility and certainly would have aborted a space shuttle mission. Its crews have demonstrated the difference between living in orbit and just visiting. They have learned to cope with design flaws, handle emergencies, strengthen weak elements, and deal with the psychological challenges of semi-isolation.

Ryumin will undoubtedly find a lot of wear and tear. Yet, as he explained, he expects to find that the cumulative work of successive crews has improved the station's functionality.

Mir began in February 1986 with launch of a central core unit that provides habitation, work space, and a command-and-communications center. A ball-shaped unit at one end provides docking ports for other laboratory modules and a spacecraft.

In developing this 120-ton space station, Russian engineers have refined the technology of docking both manned and unmanned spacecraft to a much larger facility. Russian cosmonauts have accumulated exten- sive experience in weightless living. This experience has been shared by American astronauts over the past three years.

The fire in an oxygen generator in February 1997 and damage to the Spektr module and solar panels by collision with a Progress tanker last June have led to design and procedure changes that will enhance safety on the new space station. Ryumin will be looking for all the flaws and fixes. There still is time to incorporate "dos" and "don'ts" learned on Mir into the construction of the international space station.

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