Originally created 07/05/97

American on disabled Mir had the right size



CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - NASA astronaut Michael Foale may well be cursing his size.

Someone else was supposed to be on Russia's Mir station, someone else who would now be struggling to keep aloft and alive after the worst wreck in space. But that someone else was too tall.

NASA needed a shorter astronaut, pronto, and turned to the more-compact Foale.

"Hey, it's just how the coin gets tossed," Foale said before flying to Mir in May.

At 5 feet 11 inches and 155 pounds, Foale is just the right size for the Soyuz lifeboat that's attached to Mir at all times.

He proved during the accident that he also has the right stuff.

"He helped us a lot," Mir's commander, Vasily Tsibliyev, said after the June 25 collision. "He did more than many other American astronauts."

Foale was monitoring the garbage-filled supply ship that Tsibliyev was trying to redock by remote-control when the astronaut was ordered to get into the Soyuz capsule - fast.

A second or two later, the ship plowed into Mir and pierced the thin, aluminum hull of the Spektr lab module. Foale heard the thud and felt his ears pop as the air pressure dropped. He also heard a hiss, the sound of air being sucked out.

Fortunately, the hole was small and the crew had enough time to seal off the ruptured module from the rest of the station.

If the ship had punched a bigger hole or collided with Mir's nerve center, the three men would have jumped into the Soyuz - assuming they would have had enough time to do so - and returned quickly to Earth.

The Soyuz can carry no more than three people. Even then, it's cramped, thus the rigid size requirements.

To fit into the Soyuz - and consequently to live on Mir - men and women must be 5 feet 4 1/2 inches to 6 feet tall, with seated height no more than 37 inches; weigh no more than 187 pounds; and, for Soyuz spacesuits, have chests no smaller than 38 inches and no larger than 44 inches.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski, NASA's original choice for its fifth Mir slot, was 2 inches too tall, and Russian space officials yanked him from the lineup in late 1995.

NASA was desperate. Only half its 88 astronauts met the Russian size requirements, and most of them were preparing for space shuttle flights.

Enter Foale, who was enjoying a quiet, cushy management job at Johnson Space Center in Houston after returning from his third space shuttle flight.

The next thing he knew, the 40-year-old, British-born astrophysicist was headed to Russia for cosmonaut training, along with his wife and their two young children.

"He wanted to help NASA out," Rhonda Foale explained after space shuttle Atlantis dropped her husband off at Mir for a four-month stay. "He had the right qualifications and he was doing well with Russian to start with ... he's reading Pushkin now."

"And, of course, Mike was the right height."

Foale seems to be handling the crisis in his typically unflappable British style.

Here's his no-fuss, no-muss description of the collision: "Rather exciting moment which certainly got my attention."

And here's his take on being without his bed, clothes, shaver and other personal belongings, all stuck in the fractured, airless module: "I'm kind of like the dog that lives on the street."

Why, he's even said he'd fly in space again.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin insisted Thursday he will not leave Foale up there if it becomes too dangerous. Repairs to Mir's crippled power system have been bumped to July 17 or 18 to give the cosmonauts more time to prepare for the unprecedented spacewalk work.

The too-tall Parazynski, meanwhile, will be along for the ride when Atlantis returns for Foale in mid-September, possibly sooner if things get worse on Mir.

It could have been him.