In 1997 during a docking test with the use of an onboard remote control, an unmanned cargo vessel collided into the Russian Mir Space Station. The collision punctured part of the space station, leaking air and causing Mir to spin while knocking out much of its power supply. It remains the most serious collision ever involving a manned spacecraft. On board Mir at the time was Michael Foale and I’ve come to listen to his talk on the 20th anniversary of the Mir space station collision.
Michael Foale is a veteran NASA astronaut of six Space Shuttle Missions with extended stays on the Russian Mir Space Station and the International Space Station. He spent 4 months on the Russian Mir Space Station during the Mir 23 and Mir 24 missions. It was during Mir 23 that the Progress M-34 resupply vessel struck the Mir station’s Spektr module nearly losing the space station and without quick thinking from Foale, may have seen the loss of him along with his fellow cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliev and Sasha Lazutkin.
A British-American astronaut, Foale was born in Louth, Lincolnshire to an American Mother and his Father, an RAF pilot. he lived all over Europe and at some point became a boarding school child. It was going to America on holiday with his mum at the World State Fair in Minneapolis that he saw John Glenn’s capsule Friendship 7 and event that eventually changed everything. Friendship 7 had already been in space and completed orbits around the Earth, it wasn’t shiny and freshly painted and to this young child’s eyes looked like a charred dustbin but the young Mike Foale looked up to the ceiling and saw a precursor model of the Space Shuttle.
At school he found science fiction as a great motivator, even if his teacher disagreed. Mike Foale was 12 years old when he saw the moon landings and allowed him to focus more on science and technology. He initially applied to the RAF, he was pretty sure the UK would have an astronaut programme by the time he finished university, before being turned down for any eye problem at the age of 16 and being told he would not be fit to fly. With some scholarly advice from his Father, he focused and on what he liked doing and what he could do well. He studied astrophysics at Cambridge, flew gliders, went scuba diving, measured the brightness of galaxies with radio telescopes before moving to the USA to pursue a distinguished career in the US space programme.
Originally working for McDonnell Douglas, he then got a job at Johnson Space Centre in Mission Control. Dr Michael Foale applied 3 times to NASA and it was after his third attempt with his essay on teamwork and the Challenger disaster that he became an astronaut in 1987 and flew on 6 Space Shuttle missions. He has spent more than 373 days in space and completed 4 space walks totaling over 22 hours:
- STS-45 – The first ATLAS mission to study atmosphere and solar interactions.
- STS-56 – Carrying ATLAS-2 and SPARTAN satellites that made observations of the solar corona.
- STS-63 – The first rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station and Foale making his first spacewalk to evaluate extremely cold spacesuit conditions.
- STS-84 – Foale joined the Russian Mir space station with the Mir 23 crew. After the collision, Foale conducted a 6 hour EVA in a Russian Orlan spacesuit to inspect damage to the space station.
- STS-86 – After spending 145 days in Space, Foale returned to Earth.
- STS-103 – A repair and upgrade mission to the Hubble Space Telescope where Michael Foale replaced the main computer in an 8 hour EVA.
- Soyuz TMA-3 – A 6 month stay on the International Space Station as Expedition 8 Commander.
The American Space Programme was about to build a non international space station, it was becoming expensive, it was the early 90’s, the Soviet Union fell apart. At the same time there was a perceived exodus by the CIA, British Intelligence that Russian scientists and engineers were not being paid because all of the military industrial complex int eh Soviet Union didn’t have a goal anymore and they might potentially be exporting nuclear and rocket technologies to North Korea and Iran.
We as NASA astronauts were told we were going top designing Space Station Freedom, President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to build the ISS so that NASA could put money into the Russian space programme so that Russian space engineers were paid so they don go to North Korea and Iran.
3/4 of the NASA astronauts are military, they were trained to kill the enemy and the enemy at that time was the Soviet Union. They didn’t think too much about this programme of working together in space. When we had Vladimir Titov on our flight, we gave him professional courtesy, but we all looked at him with suspicion. he was one of two that were sent over to fly on the Space Shuttle as an exchange to get both sides ready to work with the other. I had my 3rd flight on STS-63, I thought I was possibly going to do a joint mission where I would go up to the Mir station, do a glorious handshake and that would be it. I was on a PR to Moscow for the very first time, we were being shown around by Vladimir Titov. We go into an office where there were a couple of Americans and a Russian secretary and their job was to set up the programme where American astronauts would come to Russia to take part on the Mir space station. I’m there with my crew when the Russian secretary then tells me that I am going to be living here in 3 weeks time with my family. I had no idea.
As a small group, we were quite tight as we got ready to first speak Russian, learn enough Russian to study the Soyuz and Mir. It was cold, one of the first things we got was a sled, my wife Rhonda spent most of her time looking for food, buying eggs and bread off the back of a lorry, daughter goes to school along with Russian kids. Spent time with a gym instructor who insisted I do flips on a trampoline, even though I was already a professional astronaut because that is what Yuri Gagarin had done. I was having to deal with a change in culture and a language. I was training in a Soyuz spacecraft but had to keep my hands to myself, I wasn’t allowed to touch any buttons. I really had no role, we were not to learn any operations, they regarded me as a spy. I was either called Cambridge or Langley.
The spaceship is built differently, they have a different approach to building a rocket. If we want to navigate in space, we use a gyroscope, probably because in the west, we build gyroscopes really well but in Russia they couldn’t get a gyroscope to spin for very long so they did all of their navigation by looking at the change in attitude. We had big disconnects on language, the meaning of technical terms even though they sounded exactly the same.
Went back to America to join the crew of STS-84 who had been working without me. The purpose of the mission as described to me by the Russian programme manager after he’d had a few vodkas was that I would be”the useful weight.” His wife Yelena Kondakova was a Russian cosmonaut who had been on the Mir station, Jerry Linenger was already on the Mir and had been through a fire which had almost brunt though the hull of the base block of the Mir space station. We already knew about the fire and I was being launched to the station wondering what I was going to. I really wasn’t part of the STS-84 crew because I hadn’t trained with them. It was Yelena Kondakova who had spotted that, she would chat to me in Russian and encouraged me that it would be a better experience than I was anticipating.
I was replacing Jerry Linenger, he wrote the report about the fire. When I was approaching Mir, it was with dread, I didn’t know how Vasily Tsibliev and Sasha Lazutkin would be, if my Russian was going to be good enough. Vasily spoke very quickly, very military, uses a bad word every third word. I’d brought movies with me and was showing them a movie when the TV player in the middle of a movie shorted and smoke filled up all around it. I asked them why did that happen and they said it was the first time they had used during their expedition, they had been there 2 months. It was another sign of decay.
I was speaking with Jerry when he told me that one morning he went into the base block which is where they spent most of their time as it was the control post and he saw Vasily looking really startled, using TORU, a hand controller with a TV screen, a camera on a Progress cargo ship and flying it to the station, the screen went blank, Vasily looked scared and he saw Progress go by in the bottom window about 18 feet away. NASA didn’t know anything about this.
The day before the collision, Vasily had set up the hand controller the night before and we were having dinner when I asked what they were doing. They replied that they would be doing a docking test with Progress and then I started to remember what Jerry had told me. I asked how that would go when Sasha asked why I needed to know with Vasily saying Cambridge! Langley! Sasha asked how I knew so much and I said that I listed to the lectures that you Russians gave us. He thought that was very suspicious, they really didn’t want to tell me that much about it. I’d heard a rumour that Vasily was one of the best manual docking experts already in the cosmonaut corps. They said the distance was 6km, it was normally done from 100 metres.
If you are in space and in orbit around the earth, if you come from a distance greater than a few hundred metres, or if your journey time is more than 20 minutes, you will go in a curve and not in a straight line. That means its orbital mechanic and rendezvous because everything is in curves, I knew this because I had been a planning engineer on STS-63. I asked how they knew their range and distance, they turned their radar off. They had to measure the size of the Mir solar arrays in the TV screen and take the size in squares on the TV screen and look it up on a graph which would then tell how far away it is based on the size on the TV screen. They then write down the time and 10 seconds later do it all again, get another measurement to get the speed.
Americans do it slowly, because their loads are heavier, 100 tons, so there is a lot of time to do the method they had just described and Americans do use that as a back up method. But Soyuz is light and small, Progress is just like Soyuz, comes in fast and breaks quickly at the end because it uses less fuel. I asked what I could do to help to which they told me I had no role. They eventually let me use a laser range finder.
Vasily was up the next morning, he was going to do this right, had set it up the night before, he was sure the TV going off was just a glitch. Progress was coming but he was at right angles to the docking axis which meant he was coming in too fast, hasn’t braked enough and he’s got much more speed than he can extinguish using the thrusters. At this point Sasha tells me to go to the Soyuz and as I fly though the passageway to the Soyuz lifeboat, I see it shake around me and then feel my ears pop as the air leaves the space station as I hear the siren.
We disconnected all of the power from the Spektr module that went through the hatchway. The Russians had taken all the power from the solar arrays through the hatchway into the base block. It provided a 1/3rd of the electrical energy for the station. Because Progress had hit the Spektre module, there was a hole there and the air had rushed out of it. I didn’t think it was possible to remove all of those cables, but we did. They were big, big cables carrying 300 amps each, which were lives as we disconnected those. We got the cap in place, had disconnected the power, isolated the leak but the whack of the Progress hitting the Spektr module, the momentum that had been transferred had put us in a big wobble.
There are 12 big gyroscopes on the Mir station and they spin to torque the station. these had been disconnected, the batteries were all dead, we’d gone into darkness, in to night. This meant the angular momentum meant we were now tumbling in quite a chaotic way. The idea we started to have was that we could use the Soyuz which was still attached and use its little thrusters to stop the tumbling and then having stop the tumbling, spin it about the Y axis so that the solar arrays could point towards the sun.
We tried to measure our tumbling rate over about 30 hours using the stars and our thumbs. The only axis that we could twist about was the one that had the flip in it, the middle moment of inertia. It was unstable and all we could do was try and spin about that unstable axis. I was very afraid that we would end up putting the station into a permanent spin about eh X axis which we could not control which would mean we would never get power back and would have to come back to Earth.
We had two modules out of 5 completely dead. We had 7 tons of water missing because when we were in the base block it was about 40 degrees C and when we were in the dead modules it was about 3 degrees C, so the water was condensing in all of these cold traps. I spent a lot of my time. Because of that, the Russians sent up another plug with Progress cargo ship that was to be installed using an intra-vehicle activity, an internal spacewalk using Russian spacesuits to put it in place. Sasha had a bad moment when he disconnected another cable as we got ready for that EVA. The Russians said at this point that the crew was too unlucky and were going to bring them home.
I was shocked, I knew I had to stay, my ride home was on the Space Shuttle. Very sad to learn that my crew weren’t going to stay with me. I had to do a spacewalk in the Russian suits which I had not been trained for, and had to hold on Anatoli Soloviev’s legs as he dug into the side of Mir with his razor knife, not a good thing to have with rubber suits. We didn’t find the leak, we didn’t find a hole, we were unsuccessful during that spacewalk. About a month later, the Shuttle came to pick me up, or rescue me as the way I put it. Then I was in the Shuttle looking through the overhead window with my last look at Mir, I never saw it again.
Questions from the audience
- Could you explain more on what you did on Mir to save Mir and whether the Russians appreciated it.
The biggest challenge I had on Mir was fitting into the crew and being included as a professional. That developed because I could that Sasha and Vasily were really busy trying to find a leak in the cooling system, they were just ripping the station apart trying to find this leak which had been going on for weeks. They were being asked to print out messages that came up on the packet radio ham. I wrote a C++ program in windows that did that for them using the original Russian fonts. I did all the DOS stuff and got it working which saved them about an hour and a half by printing out their messages quickly. It was very manual getting these messages up and down. I asked Vasily to persuade Moscow for me to run the comms and I ended up like Radar in the Mash movies. I was the one who would get all the messages from Moscow and they talked to me, not Vasily, and I would go through the messages. It was an amazing amount of trust, Russian managers were probably very uncomfortable but on-board they were happy with me doing it.
When the collision actually happened, Vasily was in a sort of state of shock that we had a dead station, it was on his shoulders that it had happened, we didn’t even know of we could get off the station to the Soyuz because it was not powered. Actually it turns out you can’t power up the Soyuz to operate without space station power. What I proposed to them was remembering that Titov had told me that you can move the Mir about using the Soyuz. What Moscow had said to us with their very last words before we lost power and lost comm, they said Vasily may have to move with Soyuz, I had picked up on that and I said that I remembered Titov saying this. Vasily and Sasha said no it couldn’t be done, Mir was much lighter then, it was 400 tons now, it was only 20 ten. We couldn’t do anything else and then I looked out the window and saw the tumbling and the spin rates building up, I started measuring them and said that we could try it at least.
I had to convince Sasha using a torch and model as Mir, spinning it to illuminate it. Because Soyuz is thin compared to the rest of the Mir, we could only spin 2 axis. That was a discussion that Vasily listened to and then said that he was going to use too much fuel trying to do that. We would need the fuel to get off and go home in case we didn’t succeed. I asked him how much would he use and he said I wasn’t trained for the Soyuz, of course, I was considered to be a spy. They were very vague about how much fuel it would use. In the end we only ended up using about 10kg of fuel, we probably had 100kg of reserve fuel. it was that persuasion, that challenge I had that was the greatest contribution.
- How do you compare the Russian Orlan spacesuit with an American one?
They are different. The American suit operates at 4.2 psi, 27 atmospheres and is more flexible because its a lower pressure and is pure oxygen. The Russian suit 0.4 of an atmosphere, stiffer, difficult to work in, I would never want to do a Hubble mission in a Russian suit. But it is a higher pressure and has a rear entry, you don’t need anyone to help you put one on, the American suit you have to have someone helping you. The Russian suit is much more robust and more importantly can be maintained by just one person.
- What is the worst part about going into Space?
Physically, it’s going to the toilet. You have to deal with it every day, you have to be clean, hygienic, and without running water. Running water is a wonderful thing, water doesn’t run, it forms balls because of the surface tension, so the lack of running water is the most awkward thing about being in space. The other one is missing other people. If you have children, as a parent you are aware that you’re not there.
- Were Sasha Lazutkin and Vasily Tsibliev considered an unlucky crew?
They considered themselves an unlucky crew. Based on the fire, the collision and then when Sasha pulled the cable, Vasily had his health issue. There were a lot of things that made them feel unlucky and when they left the Mir station to go back to earth and leave me behind, I felt very sad. I was asked by NASA if I wanted to go back at that point which I declined. After they landed in Kazakhstan, I didn’t hear from them for a week or so, I got a short message from Sasha saying “Mike its just as well you didn’t come home with us because your seat didn’t work.” It didn’t lift up to cushion the impact of the landing.
- When Helen Sharman visited Mir, there were times she was told to not be in particular areas while the Russians were working together, did that happen to you?
That was probably because they were men and she was a woman but there were spy activities going on Mir and that why they were so suspicious of me when I asked questions, with a whole bunch of equipment. I think I knew what they were doing with it, but they wouldn’t talk about it.
- What is re-entry like on a Soyuz compared to re-entry on the Space Shuttle, are they many differences?
Huge differences. On the Soyuz you are basically spinning in and you see a lot more flame very close to your face, it’s all pink and hot, you can feel the heat the heat of the window. it cracks, you can almost hear it crack, there are 3 panes, the outer one cracks, that lasts about 5 minutes at 4 Gs, its heavier through your chest. At that point you done feel too sick but then the parachute gets deployed and you’re spinning ans swinging around, you start to feel sick so you don’t move your head about. Along flight for about 15 minutes before the engines fire, this big jolt on your back and you think you’re back is broken, then realise it didn’t because you can still move your toes and can then see people running towards you across the grass in Kazakhstan.
The Space Shuttle takes much longer to come in to the Earth’s atmosphere, takes twice as long, can feel 1 and 1/2 Gs through your head, so you actually feel more light headed even though its less Gs and it lasts for longer, about 20 minutes. But it is like an airplane, doing a cool left bank maneuver, 90 degrees bank, straight down looking at Mexico whizzing along at an amazing speed, doing Mach 17 but low down zipping along. Then we get to Florida and the atmosphere is starting to get much thicker, the view is just awesome. I’d say you’d get just as nauseous because it’s doing these rolls, then it come around in an alignment circle. By the time it lands, it’s very soft so that’s the best thing.
- How easy it to bring the Space Station down?
I think it’s going to be a lot harder than they think. I’ve made my opinion known they they should not de-orbit the Space Station. At least leave it unmanned for use of commercial crews or for commercial tourist destination. But there are people at NASA who just disagree and they raise all of the existing engineering concerns that I have with module survivability, and use a Russian Progress for a long time to bring it to a slow descending orbit to put it into the Pacific Ocean. I thought that was pretty touch and go when they did that with the Mir and think it will be 4 times touch and go with the ISS. Stand by Earth. They are meant to do that in 2024.
Meeting Tom Cruise’s Middle Finger & Top Gun Shuttle Astronaut Scott Altman
The Twins Paradox – Meeting the twin Astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly
Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford
Apollo and Gemini astronaut Jim Lovell
Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham
Space Shuttle astronaut Eileen Collins
Meeting Fred Haise from Apollo 13
Meeting Ken Mattingly
Meeting the Moonwalker Alan Bean
Meeting Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle astronauts at CosmicCon