Mir News 453: Znamya 2.5 Program: Mir. Flight: Mir EO-26, Mir EO-26/-27.
A tragic conjunction of circumstances caused the failure of this experiment. In soviet times successes caused an enormous publicity explosion. Nowadays the balance goes the other way: extensive information and publicity before an interesting hazardous operation and when there is a failure a strong hangover afterwards. For me the days before the execution of the experiment were hectic. Lots of people, among them even some who never before were not interested in spaceflight, tackled me to get information. The media had given them the impression that the Russians were about to install a real midsummer night's sun. As much as possible, often even disappointing those enthusiasts, I tried to explain them that this was just an experiment to try out the methods and the technologies of a solar reflector for the far future and that it had not been planned to surprise us with an overwhelming happening.
It was clear the Russians were not happy with the enthusiasm and attention before and that some of them would prefer a little bit soviet-like publicity: so exuberant joy when a risky attempt was successful , but silence after a failure.
What went wrong? Just when Padalka transmitted the command to unfold the reflector packages, the Progress-M40 got a command from earth to deploy a Kurs antenna. One slip of the reflector got stuck behind this antenna and the unfolding process stopped. After the retraction of the antenna and a motor burn of the Progress-M40 the reflector came free, but a second attempt to deploy the reflector with the centrifugal forces of the spinning around its X-axis Progress-M40 failed. After analyses and nightly deliberations the Russians decided to blow off the experiment and to put the Progress-M40 on a destruction course.
On 4.02.1999 at 09.59.32 UTC the freighter separated from the aft (Kvant-1) docking port of Mir.
On 5.02.1999 at 1016 UTC Progress-M40 got the impulse to bring it back into the atmosphere. At 1110 UTC Progress-M40 burnt up over a designated area in the Pacific East of New-Zealand.
These began with the reception between 1302 and 13.03.30 UTC of the 922.755 mc beacon and telemetry transmitter of Progress-M40. This was for me the prove that Progress-M40 was flying autonomously. Mir's radio conversations during the following passes of Mir and Progress-M40 made it clear that the experiment was not proceeding according to plan. Padalka reported hat he had switched off several systems and obviously the crew transferred the control of Progress-M40 to TsUP.
Avdeyev continuously reported to TsUP the distances between Mir and Progress-M40 with the times. During the pass in orbit 74054, 1439-1440 UTC, he reported that at 13.54.40 UTC the distance had been 4090 Meters. At about 1439 UTC the distance was approx. 2 KM. For the measurements Avdeyev had to soar from port-hole to port-hole. Regularly he reported that it was difficult to track and to observe the Progress-M40 due to the sunlight shining in his eyes and now and then Mir's solar panels hampered him. Possibly Avdeyev had to report the distances to the man at TsUP who controlled the Progress-M40.
Now and then the UKW-2 (130.165 mc) was in use for communications. During the pass in orb. 74055, (1606-1615 UTC) he continued to report the distances. One of my friends, radio-amateur Hans van Dijk (NL number 10204), picked up images of the Progress-M40 transmitted to earth with SSTV on 145.985 mc.
The failure of the experiment was discussed during radio traffic. Padalka did not make a fuss about this, but he was disappointed about the fact that the crew had not been able to carry out their work. He expressed his satisfaction about the fact that the control of Progress-M40 with the TORU and the transfer of commands for the experiment worked flawlessly. He regretted the fact that they had installed all equipment to film and photograph the events in vain. He joked that they might be able to try it again in 6 years. About this all and the plans with this experiment for the next day he had a conversation with Flight control chief V.A. Solovyov.
During the communication window in orb. 74057/58, 1915-1926 UTC, the crew, certainly unintended, startled the flight controller at TsUP by switching off the transmitter. This man possibly thought that something was wrong (in fact a free flying freighter not far from Mir!) and reacted immediately. Avdeyev told him that all was well on board.
Chris v.d. Berg, NL-9165/A-UK3202.