Glass Houses

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MOSCOW: "It's simply indecent," fumes Russian Space Mission Control Center Chief Deputy Viktor Blagov, responding to American charges that the 11-year-old space station Mir, currently hosting American astronaut Jerry Linenger, is on its last legs. "We would ask the Americans: What kind of experts are you to think about deserting this unique space platform?" According to NASA, cautious ones. Mir has undergone a worrisome stretch of technical foul-ups lately, ranging from an overheated living module to the explosion of an oxygen-generating canister. While the Russians insist everything is under control, NASA does not share their confidence: if the problems continue after Linenger's return to Earth in mid-May, the U.S. space agency says, it won't send up another American to work with the Russian crew. Unfounded hysteria, counters Blagov, who blames the agency's "over-reaction" on spaceflight disasters in 1967 and 1986 that killed 10 Americans. "Our record here has been far less threatening," concludes Blagov. Maybe. While the Russian space program claims only two deaths in its 36 years of operation, tight-lipped secrecy among military space program officials is thought to mask dozens of other deaths from launch pad explosions, rumors that are not likely to reassure NASA officials.