Foale's Four Times Round Earth

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MOSCOW: NASA astronaut Michael Foale will take a stroll, Saturday — nothing too strenuous, just four times around the Earth. Foale and cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyov are scheduled to spend six hours on a spacewalk outside the crippled Mir space station, fixing a damaged solar panel and looking for leaks caused by the June 25 collision with a cargo vessel. Mir will circle Earth four times during their saunter in space.

Although Russian Mission Control scheduled Friday as a rest day for the pair, they will only be allowed three hours of sleep ahead of their space walk. A few minutes of live opera will be piped into the Mir from Moscow ahead of the scheduled lights out, presumably for its soporific effect. Although Foale and Solovyov will have to be aware of the danger of puncturing their suits on sharp metal edges caused by the crash impact, experts say the mission’s risk-factor is moderate. Patching the punctures will be left to a future space walk. Even then, such exercises may prove to be simply that — Russian space officials announced earlier this week that Mir would be decommissioned next year, and will — they hope — crash down into the Pacific early in 1999.