Computer troubles persist at space station

Saturday, April 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ NASA engineers struggled with computer problems aboard the international space station Saturday while a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the world's first paying space tourist streaked toward the 240-mile-high outpost.

NASA hoped to have the computers working in time for space shuttle Endeavour to undock from the station Sunday to avoid an orbital traffic jam when the Soyuz arrives on Monday.

If the problems persist, Russian space officials have agreed to keep the Soyuz in a holding pattern, possibly until Tuesday.

``They won't dock with the shuttle there. There's no doubt about this,'' said NASA representative Michael Baker, who watched the Soyuz lift off Saturday from Baikonur, Kazakstan.

The problematic command-and-control computers are critical to operating the station's new billion-dollar robot arm.

Early Saturday, the main computer was working, but its two backups remained down. One backup, believed to have a failed hard drive, was replaced by a spare computer at the station, and Mission Control was loading software into the replacement.

The computer failures have delayed plans for the new arm to hand off its 3,000-pound packing crate to a smaller arm attached to the shuttle. Mission Control hoped to complete the handoff Saturday if at least two computers were working.

Other tests of the new arm were scrapped with time running out.

``We're still trying to find the smoking gun in what caused our initial set of problems, and until we get that smoking gun identified, we're going to take things slow and easy and not do any operations that aren't 100 percent mandatory for a safe operation of the station,'' said Wayne Hale, a Mission Control representative.

U.S. astronaut Susan Helms, aboard the station for a 4 1/2-month stay with Russian commander Yuri Usachev and U.S. astronaut Jim Voss, said the problem computers do not affect other station computers or operations.

The shuttle and the Soyuz could both dock at the station, but if the Soyuz were to dock while the shuttle was there, it would come within 20 feet of it. Flight director Phil Engelauf called that ``uncomfortably close,'' given potential for radio interference and thruster contamination.

Russia said it was unwilling to postpone the Soyuz mission, as NASA had requested, because it needs to replace the space station's escape craft by the end of the month. The Soyuz craft carrying the two cosmonauts and California millionaire Dennis Tito will serve as the new lifeboat and the three will return on the older ship.