STAR CITY, Russia (AP) - Russian engineers in spacesuits plunged into a giant aquarium Friday to practice repair work on a mockup of the Mir space station. Repairs aboard the real Mir were postponed a week to give its crew more time to train.
Russian flight controllers have been feverishly looking for the best way to carry out the repair work on the damaged Spektr module, which was punctured June 25 in a collision with a cargo ship. The Spektr is one of six separate modules on the space station.
The three-man crew needs time to become familiar with the repair equipment being sent up on a cargo ship that blasts off Saturday, said Vera Medvedkova, spokeswoman at Russia's Mission Control. She said the delay did not reflect any new problems with the Mir.
The walk into the airless module, originally scheduled for July 11, has been moved back until July 17 or 18, she said. The Progress cargo ship with the repair cables and custom-made supplies is scheduled to dock with the Mir on Monday.
The Spektr lost air pressure in the collision when the cargo ship poked a hole in its side and opened up the module to the vacuum of space.
The crew quickly sealed off the Spektr from the rest of the space station to prevent full decompression, but had to disconnect power cables linking the module's solar batteries to the Mir's power system.
As a result, the Mir has lost 50 percent of its power.
In the repair effort, Mir commander Vasily Tsibliyev will go into the depressurized Spektr, reconnect the cables from the solar batteries and run them back through a new, custom-designed hatch.
But the weightlessness of space, the bulky space suits, the lack of light and the module's web of wires and scattered scientific experiments make the venture extremely difficult.
"Such work never has been done before," said Viktor Ren, an official with the Cosmonauts Training Center at Star City, just north of Moscow. Ren organized Friday's practice on a life-size mock-up of the Spektr module submerged in a 40-foot tank of water.
"It can be accomplished, but it's going to be real tough," Ren said.
Space crews have previously performed this type of work with their bare hands, but not with the bulky gloves on a spacesuit, he said.
As he spoke, Sergei Krikalyov, a former Mir cosmonaut who spent 463 days in space and now serves as a deputy chief of the Mission Control Center, put on a space suit and plunged into water to squeeze through a narrow hatch into the mock-up. He was accompanied by an instructor, dressed in the same suit, and several scuba divers.
They spent about four hours underwater in conditions attempting to approximate those in the airless Spektr.
"It actually was a little bit easier than we expected," Krikalyov said after assistants helped him out of the spacesuit. He looked haggard after the grueling excursion.
Ren praised the experiment as a success and said it would form the basis of detailed instructions to be sent to Mir aboard the cargo ship.
When the repairs are carried out on the Mir, the two cosmonauts will enter a docking port, a bubble-like enclosure that sits between the Mir's core module and the Spektr.
Cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin will remain in the docking port, while Tsibliyev will unseal the Spektr's hatch and enter feet-first through the 32-inch diameter entrance.
This will allow him to keep his head near the hatch, where he will perform his primary task - connecting nine cables inside the Spektr.
American astronaut Michael Foale will be waiting inside the Soyuz escape capsule, ready to make a quick exit with his colleagues if necessary. NASA officials said Foale hadn't been trained to fly the Soyuz, but knows how to operate its automatic pilot if he has to.
Aboard Mir, the crew continued efforts Friday to fix another problem - the failure of gyroscopes that orient the spacecraft toward the sun. The system shut down Thursday for the second time since the collision last week.
The crew has located the problem, but it will still take a while to bring the gyroscope system back up, Russian space officials said.
The 11 gyroscopes orient the Mir so its solar batteries can soak up the sun's energy. Without them, Mir has to fire its thrusters periodically to reorient itself, spending the precious fuel.
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