By Andy Cooke
What Could Have Happened...
The ageing Mir space station could support three people routinely. At the moment, six are on-board.
This was not exceptionally unusual - there is a two week handover period between crews. Valeri Korzun and Aleksandr Kaleri are handing over to Vasily Tsibiliyev and Aleksandr Lazutkin. German astronaut Rheinhold Ewald has come up with the latter for the two week handover period to do some scientific experiments on behalf of ESA and would return with Korzun and Kaleri. In addition, NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger joined the station crew a month earlier, with four months left to go of his mission as part of the Shuttle-Mir program.
It does mean that the ageing Elektron oxygen generators (only one of which is still operating) cannot provide enough oxygen for all on-board. Supplemental oxygen is provided using the "SFOG candles" - solid fuel oxygen generators which were "ignited" to provide oxygen. These have been used routinely for years (albeit with at least one serious incident two-and-a-half years earlier that the Russians had unaccountably forgotten to brief to the Americans...)
Lazutkin is in the Kvant-1 module - once used for astrophysics and now known as "the attic." Half the length of the base module and the first extra module to be added to the base module, it provided the second docking port (which connected to the descent Soyuz for Korzun, Kaleri, and Ewald) and was largely used for storage of equipment and junk (as it was conveniently placed for the regular unmanned Progress ferries, which would dock where the Soyuz currently was). He pulls out the foot-long "candle", unlatches the top, and fastens it into place. Turning the dial on the container, he waits for the fresh oxygen to come out. It does - but a few moments later, there is a loud hissing, sparks fly from the top, and a column of flame shoots out, propelled by the reaction.
The nearby rubbish ignites immediately. The fire spreads. Korzun leads the attempt to suppress it, impaired by the unavailability of some of the extinguishers (it later turns out they hadn't been unstrapped after launch). Once it took hold, though, it is unstoppable. The gas masks the crew donned are unreliable, which doesn't help. The most deadly fact is that the evacuation Soyuz can only hold three people - the other Soyuz is on the other side of the fire...
What Did Happen
Things didn't quite happen like that. As it happened, the crew had just cleared the rubbish away from the vicinity of the candle after letting it accumulate for weeks. The candle didn't ignite anything else, and, in OTL, Korzun managed to quench the fire after nearly fifteen minutes in near-black smoke and after emptying multiple extinguishers.
What Could Have Happened
Korzun, Kaleri, and Ewald had departed after the fallout of the fire had been finally resolved. A Progress unmanned Soyuz capsule is due. Thanks to problems between Russia and Ukraine, a new docking system is being trialled (The Russians are running low on KURS automatic docking units and are arguing over the price of new ones; they are attempting manual docking using a new system). KURS is still on-board and the signal will augment the images.
As the Progress approaches to less than five thousand metres, the camera on-board is supposed to come on so that Tsibiliyev can guide it in. And now telemetry is lost.
The picture is late. The Progress is now four minutes away and the screen is blank. Lazutkin and Linenger try to spot it through the portholes. Without success.
Two minutes from docking, the eight-tonne spacecraft is bearing down on them and Tsibiliyev is starting to worry. Then Lazutkin spots it. In response to Tsibiliyev's plaintive request to tell him where it is, he answers unhelpfully. "It's close!" Lazutkin then tells Linenger to get to the evacuation Soyuz. As Linenger complies, he sees Tsibiliyev frantically moving the joysticks. The commander is attempting to fly the Progress blind and guess which way to go to avoid collision. Lazutkin and Linenger rapidly start to disconnect the cables and tubes that connect the Soyuz to Mir...
What Did Happen
In OTL, Progress-M33 missed Mir by a couple of hundred metres - about twice the length of one of the solar arrays. The Russians forgot to mention the incident to NASA, who only learned of it after Linenger's return.
What Could Have Happened
After months of further issues, including the failure of the on-board remaining Elektron air processor (requiring them to use the now-questionable "candles" again), attitude control failure (with Mir slowly spinning in orbit), coolant leaks (leading to temperatures rising rapidly), CO2 buildup, Linenger handing over to Michael Foale (gratefully returning to Earth), and Tsibiliyev falling ill after exhaustion and glycol exposure, surely things will improve?
TsUP (Russian Ground Control) decides that they can try again with the manual docking system that failed in March. Progress M-34 had been launched in April and docked successfully (using one of the few KURS units left). They would undock it, pull it back, switch of KURS and redock using TORU. They have worked out what went wrong in March - the KURS signal interferes with the camera image. Solution: turn off KURS completely. Instead of telemetry, Tsibiliyev is to use a handheld laser rangefinder and a stopwatch. What could possibly go wrong?
The Progress is undocked and sent into a higher orbit, forty-five kilometres above Mir. TsUP will bring it to a distance seven kilometres out, at which point Tsibiliyev will guide it home. Unfortunately while out of communications with the ground, but hey, you can't have everything.
This time, the picture comes on. They have difficulty spotting Mir in the image, against the clouds. Foale attempts to spot the spacecraft in order to use the laser range-finder; he can't see it. Lazutkin tries; he has no better luck. Tsibiliyev tries to calculate the Progress's speed manually and is satisfied - but the blocky square on the picture that is supposed to be Mir has not grown to the size it should have done.
They still can't see the Progress. The image indicates it's (probably) a kilometre away still and crawling towards them. With ninety seconds to go, it should be four hundred metres away, but they still haven't seen it. Then Lazutkin spots it - far closer and larger than any of them suspected. "Under a hundred and fifty metres," he shouts. It is heading straight for base block - which will kill them all. Then it is closer than Kvant-1, having missed the docking port and moving up base block. "Into the ship," orders Lazutkin to Foale, who promptly obeys, his foot nearly nudging Tsibiliyev as he goes.
A few seconds later, the Progress collides with the Core Module, hard enough to punch a small hole straight through the skin...
What Did Happen
In OTL, Foale's foot did nudge Tsibilliyev. Everyone on board disagrees on the effect of this nudge: Foale insists it can't have affected Tsibiliyev's flying; the inputs needed were significant and prolonged; Tsibiliyev later hints that this nudge was why the crash happened; Lazutkin disagrees, claiming that before the nudge, the Progress (which he was watching) was coming straight for base block; afterwards, it headed for the new Spektr module. As Lazutkin had the best view of the Progress and no personal stake in the impact of the nudge, I've elected to take his word on it.
Regardless of the exact tiny cause of the change, the Progress actually collided with the solar arrays on the Spektr module and the module itself, knocking a hole in it and causing depressurisation. (In the diagram above, it missed the purple Kvant-1 and green Core Module and impacted on the grey Spektr Module).
Racing against the falling air pressure, Tsibiliyev, Lazutkin, and Foale managed to isolate Spektr. They couldn't just close the hatch immediately - there were lots of data cables, ventilation tubes, and power cables snaking through it. They sawed through most of them, before tracing a power cable to its source and disconnecting it... but too late to shut the hatch against the rushing air. A hatch "lid" was hurriedly pressed into action, which worked. A prolonged and desperate attempt to save the station ensued, including retrieving it from the "Coffin State" of no power.
Mir had numerous other faults and incidents, but few others gained as much attention. Possibly because American astronauts weren't on board; the Russian Space Agency had a pronounced tendency to suppress bad news.
Mir was the first third-generation space station and the first space station to be occupied permanently for prolonged periods. The Soviets launched the first dedicated space stations after their lunar programme collapsed, claiming that they'd never been heading to the Moon, no, why do you ask, we were always going for space stations, we weren't going to the Moon, no, not us.
The 18-tonne Salyut 1 was launched in 1971, occupied by the tragic Soyuz 11 crew, who spent 23 successful days on board before perishing in a decompression accident on re-entry. Salyut 2, 3, 4, and 5 followed between then and 1976 (three of which were military stations). Meanwhile, NASA launched Skylab, based around a modified Saturn V third stage. When Skylab was docked with an Apollo Command and Service Module, it massed as much as Salyuts 1 to 5 added together.
However, none of these had more than one docking port, none could be expanded, and none were designed for prolonged mission support. The six stations between them had been occupied for a total of 369 days (albeit Salyut 2 never received visitors before re-entering early).
Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 were the second-generation space stations. Outwardly similar to the early Salyut craft, but with two docking ports and life support designed to support crews for longer periods. Salyut-6 received 16 Soyuz visits between 1977-1981 and was occupied for 683 days. Salyut-7 was occupied for 816 days between 1982-1986, including an impressive resurrection from abandonment in 1985.
Mir was designed to be learn from all of these. A modular space station, it would build up from a "base block" with the addition of extra modules (Kvant-1, Kvant-2, Kristall, Priroda, and Spektr) over the years. Initially envisaged to fly for five years, it was in its eleventh year in 1997 and eked out its life until 2001, occupied for over twelve-and-a-half years.
The lessons learned on Mir have been crucial to the International Space Station. Even such minor things as keeping the "candles" always clear of any obstruction, litter, or anything flammable (yes, the same SFOG "candles" are used on the ISS...), and important things such as not running cables through hatches and developing systems that don't break down after prolonged use in space.
But what if one of the incidents on Mir had gone as badly as they so easily could have done? Over a five month period in June 1997 alone, there were three near-fatal accidents or incidents. It's very possible that there were many more on Mir that were kept quiet by the Russian Space Agency; these were impossible to suppress due to the presence of NASA astronauts. The fire could easily have spread, guaranteeing the deaths of three of the six on board. Progress M-33 could have collided anywhere on Mir. Progress M-34 did collide with Mir and cause a depressurisation. An impact on the base block or the node would have been impossible to deal with. There were multiple points where a wrong decision could have caused catastrophe.
A fatal accident (or even permanent abandonment) of Mir during this time - Phase One of the Shuttle-Mir program - could well have caused international co-operation between America and Russia in space to break down. Had one of the NASA astronauts been killed, I think that breakdown would have been certain.
The International Space Station would have needed to proceed without Russia. It would be rather different - in OTL, it was built around the first module being from Russia: "Zarya" (Dawn) was originally intended to be part of Mir-2.
Would the ISS have gone ahead without Russia? Would Congress have cancelled it? If it had gone ahead, when would it have flown and what would it have been like?
And, given that NASA might not want to use Russian help, what would have happened in the post-Columbia era? In OTL, the Shuttle programme limped on to 2011, after which it was retired and NASA astronauts flew on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. If that was not deemed to be an option, would the Shuttle programme have continued (reluctantly)? Would another disaster have happened?
Or would there have been a more urgent programme to restore American manned access to space? Or would any nascent space station have needed to be abandoned? Or would NASA have, at the last recourse, have turned to Soyuz in any case?
Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP