Originally created 10/01/97

Government says Mir crash caused by combination of factors



MOSCOW (AP) - Russian officials appeared to back away Tuesday from an earlier finding that human error caused an overloaded, unmanned cargo ship to crash into the Mir space station - the worst ever collision in space.

In a final report on the June 25 crash, officials said it was caused by "an unfavorable combination of factors." Only a short summary of the report was made public, however.

The crash was the low point in a year of mishaps aboard the orbiting space station, and for months a cloud of suspicion has hung over the Mir's commander at the time, Vasily Tsibliyev, and his Russian colleague, Alexander Lazutkin.

Preliminary reports pointedly blamed the crew and ground controllers. Even President Boris Yeltsin joined the scapegoating, saying human error caused the collision.

Even though the whole report was not made public, the summary suggested that some questions about the crash might never be answered.

A terse government statement released to the ITAR-Tass news agency did not say whether human error played a role in the collision.

The current Mir commander, Anatoly Solovyev, echoed the summary during a ground-to-space news conference, agreeing that a variety of factors likely contributed to the crash. He also urged ground controllers to develop new equipment that would improve the Mir's ability to monitor docking spacecraft.

The Mir's crew was practicing a manual docking with a Progress cargo ship in June when the vessel veered off its expected flight path and slammed into the Mir's Spektr module, puncturing it and causing the module to lose pressure.

The final government report was based on a review by an independent team of American and Russian experts. The panel, headed by former U.S. astronaut Thomas Stafford and Vladimir Utkin, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said previously that mistakes were made by both the crew and ground controllers.

The Utkin-Stafford report also pronounced Mir safe enough to fly, which helped convince NASA to send astronaut David Wolf on a four-month mission to Mir to replace Michael Foale. The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis docked with Mir on Saturday for six days, bringing Wolf and delivering vital spare parts.

"The American side had some doubts about whether to continue joint work on Mir," Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. "But they weren't as emotional as the Russian and foreign media."

An earlier report by Russia's RKK Energia company, which built Mir, put full blame on cosmonauts Tsibliyev and Lazutkin for the crash.

Since returning to Earth in August, Tsibliyev and Lazutkin have vehemently denied any negligence, blaming the collision on an unspecified technical failure and the deteriorating state of Mir's equipment.

Energia chief Yuri Semyonov reiterated that the crash resulted from a pilot mistake, but softened his language in an apparent search for compromise. "We tried to find a smooth wording," he said. "An `unfavorable combination of factors' is what we got."

But he added, "the (cosmonauts') fatigue, caused by stress from many emergencies, also played a role."

He said the crew had received 70 percent of the compensation due to them under contracts signed with Energia, and authorities would later decide whether to pay the remainder.

Russian cosmonauts work under a system that pays bonuses for difficult tasks in space and occasionally deducts pay for mistakes.