MOSCOW - An American astronaut and his Russian colleague checked their equipment Wednesday and rehearsed the plan for the longest-ever U.S.-Russian spacewalk, a patch-the-holes mission on the outside of Mir space station.
Only a final NASA go-ahead is needed to allow U.S. astronaut Michael Foale to perform Saturday's six-hour spacewalk with Mir commander Anatoly Solovyov, the most experienced spacewalker ever.
But Foale's flurry of preparations and a rare stretch of more than a week without a report of a new problem on Mir make that all but a formality. The aging station is functioning well enough that Russian officials said Wednesday they plan to have it stay in operation two more years.
The spacewalk will be only the second by an American on Mir. Astronaut Jerry Linenger performed a nearly five-hour walk with a cosmonaut last spring.
Foale's chief task will be to pitch in with repairs needed after Mir's June 25 collision with a remote-controlled supply ship. Unlike other spacewalks, which are largely scripted while astronauts are still in ground training, NASA officials have been trying to help Foale wing it from afar.
"We view it as really turning adversity into advantage in terms of learning this type of thing," said Jerry Miller, NASA spacewalks operations manager.
"Certainly it's going to be something that we will have to do on the international space station," he said from Russian Mission Control outside Moscow.
The two men will try to locate and patch holes in the Spektr module, damaged in the collision. They also need to realign some solar panels in order to restore more power to the orbital station, and may plug an open docking port and retrieve an American scientific experiment.
"It's a pretty long shopping list," said Miller. "It looks as if there's not going to be time enough to do everything."
Several more spacewalks are envisioned this fall.
But with the Mir closer to full power and out of a crisis that lasted most of the summer, Russian officials are talking confidently again about future plans for the 11-year-old outpost, which was designed to last only five years.
The Russians say the Mir will be staffed until after the international space station is operating. The first segment of that new station is to be launched next year.
"There are no immediate plans to abandon the Mir," Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said in an interview. "All space officials have said that Russia intends to operate the Mir through the year 1999."
Meanwhile, a second Russian spokesman disputed Tuesday's statement by a high-ranking space official that a commission had formally blamed the Mir's previous crew, cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin, for the June 25 crash.
Andrei Maiboroda, chief of the Cosmonauts Training Center, told the Interfax news agency the investigation is still underway.
The conflicting accounts apparently are due to the fact that several civilian and military agencies are involved in the Russian space program.
In a commentary, Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency said officials are all but certain to find the men guilty.
"Recognition of the crew's mistake ... means that the orbital station and all Russian space technology are recognized as flawless," it said.
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