Down to earth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 1997, 12:00am

The two Russian cosmonauts came down to earth at the weekend - in more ways than one. Given the staggering costs involved in space exploration, it is easy for the layman to imagine that money is no object and that any mishap must be due to human error or the malfunctioning of some highly complicated piece of software.

And yet, according to the Mir commander, Vasily Tsibliyev, the reason for the mission's catalogue of problems was one familiar to any owner of an aging, second-hand car - lack of parts. Mir is so old that many of the nuts and bolts needed to keep it functioning properly are no longer made; others are simply overpriced. This rather suggests just how dangerously ordinary space flight appears to have become.

Perhaps it is time, therefore, to concentrate a little more on some of the basics before sending men into such a perilous environment.