American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update and Hearing Summary on Mir Safety (9-30-97)

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After conducting internal and independent reviews, NASA decided to send astronaut David Wolf to Mir on September 25. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin summarized the decision, "We move forward not only because it is safe, but for the important scientific and human experience we can gain only from Mir. As we prepare for the June 1998 launch of the International Space Station, nothing can beat the hands-on, real-time training aboard Mir."

House Science Committee hearing
September 19, 1997

Opening statement:
Due to time constraints, only Chairman Sensenbrenner and Ranking Member Brown read their opening statements. Other members submitted theirs for the record. Sensenbrenner focused his remarks on four main areas of concerns: public assurances by NASA about Mir safety have been contradicted by the facts; existing safety procedures are not being followed; Russia is not committing adequate resources to ensure Mir's safety; and finally that he does not believe the benefits of visiting Mir are still commensurate with the increasing risks. Brown took a different tone, asserting his belief that the committee "cannot be NASA's safety engineers, and should not pretend otherwise."

Roberta Gross, NASA Inspector General
Frank Culbertson, NASA's Phase 1 Program Manager
James Oberg, consultant
Marcia Smith, Congressional Research Service

Although Roberta Gross cited benefits of Mir, including insight into engineering, scientific and human factors that will be applied to the International Space Station (ISS), she also raised unanswered safety questions, such as the cause of the fire in February, the effect of ethylene glycol leaks, and future of scientific experiments. She addressed the issue of whether NASA has adequate processes and procedures to assess the risks versus the benefits of participating in Mir. Her main concern with the review process is the concentration of power at the Johnson Space Center, with "only general oversight from NASA headquarters." She referred to employees who felt "it would jeopardize their careers to be frank in their opinions, observations, and assessment of the Mir program."

Frank Culbertson, NASA's Phase 1 Program Manager testified that he believes Mir is safe, and quoted Mir resident Michael Foale who stated, "Current conditions on Mir are sufficient for life and safety." He explained that Mir has been subject to a substantial internal and external review process that indicate that Mir is safe. He also stated that he has been accused of being "too biased towards the astronauts welfare" and remarked that "these people are my friends, and I take the safety of my friends very seriously."

James Oberg, a consultant, testified that he believes the US is "held hostage to Mir" because Russian officials have indicated that US withdrawal from Mir could lead Russians to withdraw from the International Space Station. Oberg suggested putting together a blue ribbon panel, separate from NASA, DOE or DOD, to determine the safety of Mir. He discussed malfunctions with the Soyuz landing capsule, and does not believe it is safe for an American to be aboard Mir until a safe escape route is guaranteed. He concluded his written testimony by answering no to the question "Do we leave another American on Mir?"

Marcia Smith was the final witness, testifying on behalf of the Congressional Research Service. She explained that Mir has met the overall purpose of the mission - to gain experience in joint operations to reduce risk of the ISS. She provided three options for future actions regarding Mir: continue with the program as planned; complete the planned Shuttle-Mir dockings, but do not leave astronauts on Mir; or terminate the program entirely. Although she quoted Mir astronaut Jerry Linenger who stated that life on Mir has become "survival for survival's sake," she concluded that the situation is not as bad as the media has portrayed it.

Sources: Hearing testimony, The American Institute of Physics, Washington Post

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Contributed by Kasey Shewey
Last updated September 30, 1997

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