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Mir has 3-man 'lifeboat' ready

Soyuz June 25, 1997
Web posted at: 7:41 p.m. EDT (2341 GMT)

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(CNN) -- Wednesday's collision between Mir and an unmanned spacecraft raises a vital question about the Russian space station: How can the crew members aboard escape in the event of an emergency?

The answer is Soyuz, a Russian three-man craft that can leave the Mir station quickly and return to Earth within a day.

"There is no need for the shuttle, as the Soyuz can be used if necessary," NASA spokesman Joel Wells said.

NASA officials said an evacuation of the station was not planned.

In Russia, Mission Control Director Vladimir Lobachyov, after talking with the three-man Mir crew, said the collision was "the most serious accident in recent times."

Crew members said they were facing power problems following the collision.

Shuttle Atlantis is not scheduled to visit Mir until September, and the shuttle Columbia, which is being readied for launch on Tuesday, is not equipped for a Mir docking.

"Atlantis is the only shuttle configured for docking with Mir," said Wells, adding there were no plans to move up the launch date of Atlantis.

Crowded fit on Soyuz


For a quick getaway, the three crew members aboard Mir would get fully suited-up, crawl through a hatch and crowd into Soyuz's descent module -- a snug fit, according to American astronaut Jerry Linenger.

"It's very difficult to get in," said Linenger, while giving a tour inside Soyuz during his voyage on Mir earlier this year.

Linenger and his Russian crewmates had to prepare to abandon ship twice during his four-month stay on Mir, which ended in May.

His crew first considered an evacuation during a serious fire in February. They were again ready to leave in March when an off-course Progress craft was on a collision course with Mir. The cargo carrier veered off at the last minute.

Escape craft consists of three modules

Soyuz consists of three modules, and according to NASA, after Soyuz leaves Mir for Earth, the orbital and the instrument modules separate from the descent module and are destroyed.

The descent module shoots through the atmosphere and parachutes to Earth with enough food and gear for crew members to survive until they are found.

Since Soyuz ferries crew members back and forth to Mir from Earth, the Soyuz vehicle is replaced on Mir with a newer version every six months or so, as replacement crews are brought in.

NASA spokesman Ed Campion said Wednesday's collision forced the crew to seal off the damaged Mir module to stop a leakage of air pressure. But he said the current crew -- British-born NASA astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliev and Alexander Lazutkin -- were in no immediate danger.

According to Russian Mission Control, the Soyuz was in no way harmed during the recent collision, and crew members have easy access to Soyuz.

Correspondent Ann Kellan and Reuters contributed to this report.

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