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Mir space station crash: Astronaut’s harrowing ordeal as he prepared to take ‘last breath’

NASA: Skylab astronauts run around space station in 1973

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The Mir space station was involved in the worst collision in the history of space flight on June 25, 1997. All hell broke loose on the Soviet-era craft when an unmanned supply vessel smashed into the station. On the 25th anniversary of the incident, revisists a harrowing testimony given by one of the astronauts aboard the craft. Michael Foale, who retired from NASA in 2013, was one of those who survived the terrifying accident.

The UK-born astronaut revealed he prepared to take his “last breath” as he spoke to the BBC’s ‘Witness’ series in 2016.

Recalling his near-death experience, he said: “As I float through, I feel the whole space station shudder and move around me.

“I’m pretty sure this may be my last breath because I’m looking at the thin three-millimetre-thick aluminium walls, just waiting for them to part.

“There’s klaxons that go off when there’s a pressure leak and then I felt my ears popping.

“In this case this means the air is leaving the space station and there was a whistling sound coming from the Spektr module.”

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Drama began to unfold above Earth when a spacecraft called Progress began careening towards Mir.

The uncrewed cargo vessel, which had only been launched that year, was designed to deliver supplies to the space station.

Previous Progress spacecraft had used technology owned by the Ukrainian government to dock at Mir.

However, Russia had run out of money to fund its space programme after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was unwilling to pay Kyiv.

This meant Moscow opted for a manual docking procedure, controlled by Mr Foale’s colleagues, the cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliev and Alexander ‘Sasha’ Lazutkin.

The US astronaut was surveying his Russian counterparts’ manoeuvre from a window and measuring the speed of progress.

But the resupply ship was travelling far too fast and ripped through a set of solar panels before smashing into Spektr, one of Mir’s main modules.

Following the collision, the crew had about 24 minutes of oxygen left inside the space station.

Mr Foale, who was sitting in the Soyuz escape pod, said: “In 23 minutes, if we did nothing, we would start to go unconscious.

“Sasha comes to me and does not say a word and just feverishly starts trying to remove cables, leading into the Spektr module.

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“Sasha looked around for a large hatch that could be put in place.

“We just put it on and as it went on, it kind of went and got sucked in.

“But then, because the station had been hit by the Progress, we were now tumbling and rolling.”

He added: “At that point the solar arrays had no electric power, and the batteries were giving out.

“There wasn’t a fan running. None of the carbon dioxide removal was working. No oxygen regeneration.

“And no communications with Moscow or anybody else. It was a totally dead station.”

Mr Foale, an astrophysicist, had only arrived on Mir the month before the crash but played a key role in saving the space station.

After Mir’s gyroscopes went down, the station began spinning uncontrollably, around one revolution every three minutes.

Mr Foale suggested firing Mir’s engines in short, sharp bursts to stabilise the space station, a solution that proved successful.

Although the NASA astronaut and his colleagues were able to breathe sighs of relief as Mir was saved, the space station’s future was short-lived.

The first parts of its successor, the International Space Station, were flown into orbit in 1998.

Mir’s patched-up and ageing body was eventually taken out of service and brought back into Earth’s atmosphere on March 23, 2001, where it broke up over the South Pacific Ocean.

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