MOSCOW -- To those who blame the Mir's former crew for its calamities, the cosmonauts had a bitter response Saturday: The battered station remains in orbit only because they risked their lives to save it.
Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin, giving an exceptionally candid account of their ill-starred mission, said they unfairly had been turned into scapegoats by President Boris Yeltsin and other critics.
"Many people would have liked us to come back dead," Mr. Tsibliyev suggested, his voice strained with emotion.
The two cosmonauts said they had remained on board the space station during three crises even though flight manuals told them to abandon ship.
"We didn't even think about abandoning the station and running away," said Mr. Tsibliyev, the mission's commander.
The two described their fear and determination to stay on board through a series of crises, including a fire and a near-fatal crash. And they didn't try to hide their offense}at what they called unfair criticism back on Earth, especially in the media.
Mr. Yeltsin had said earlier this month that Mir's collision with a cargo ship in June apparently was the result of human error - presumably Mr. Tsibliyev's.
Mr. Tsibliyev was visibly hurt when asked about the president's remarks during a news conference at the cosmonaut training center in Star City, a town outside Moscow.
"It has been a long-time tradition here in Russia to look for scapegoats," he said. "Of course, it is easier to put all the blame on the crew. But in this case, there is no specific person to blame."
Space officials, who flanked cosmonauts at the table, quickly intervened, saying that Mr. Yeltsin could have meant that mission controllers, not the crew, were to blame. They noted that the president sent congratulations to the crew upon their return.
Mr. Tsibliyev and Mr. Lazutkin refused to give concrete answers about who or what may have been responsible for specific accidents, saying a government commission will make that determination.
But they offered an often hair-raising account of their mission, which they described as rocky from beginning to end.
"It all began from the very start of the mission, and not because we were bunglers," Mr. Tsibliyev said. "If we indeed had been bunglers, we would have come back on Feb. 23, right after the fire, because flight instructions ordered us to instantly leave the station."
Russian space officials downplayed the blaze at the time, calling it a "micro-fire" that did not threaten the crew.
When Mir's cooling system began leaking antifreeze and overheated the station to 86 degrees, Mission Control also said the situation was unpleasant but not dangerous for the crew.
But, according to Mr. Tsibliyev, the flight manual contradicted the official optimism, ordering the crew to evacuate the station if they were unable to fix the thermal control system quickly. It took the crew three months to locate and patch all the leaks.
Finally, when a cargo ship punctured one of the station's modules during a June 25 practice manual docking, flight manuals also offered no alternative but to take to the Soyuz escape capsule and leave.
Mr. Tsibliyev said he could not explain why the cargo ship spun out of control and hit the station, but noted the docking system had provided him inadequate information about its course and speed.
"I have even more questions than you about the collision," Mr. Tsibliyev said.
Some Russian newspapers have reported that in simulations of the incident conducted after the collision, several highly experienced space pilots also crashed the ship.
Mr. Tsibliyev said the mission was bumpy until its final moment.
"Even during the landing, the soft-landing engines didn't work, and we hit the ground very hard," he said.
Mr. Tsibliyev said he and Mr. Lazutkin were lucky that neither was sitting on the right side of the Soyuz capsule, which took the brunt of the impact.
Despite his harrowing tour of duty, Mr. Tsibliyev said it was premature to write off the 11-year-old space station, six years past its planned lifetime. He insisted that most of the Mir's problems have earthbound sources - chiefly, Russia's ailing economy.
"It's impossible to procure many things which are vital for the station, due to the fact that they are either not manufactured any longer, short in supply, or overpriced," he said.
Both cosmonauts praised their NASA crewmates - Americans Jerry Linenger, who came back in May, and his replacement Michael Foale, who is still on Mir.
"They were nice guys. We were happy to get them on board," Mr. Lazutkin said.
Mr. Tsibliyev insisted that their mission should be remembered for its success, not its failures: "This mission was a lucky one. We came back alive."