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NASA experts oppose space station mission -report
( 2003-10-23 15:28) (Agencies)

NASA's decision to launch a fresh crew to the International Space Station came over the strenuous objections of mid-level scientists and physicians who raised safety concerns, The Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The newspaper said two officials responsible for health and environmental conditions on the space station refused to approve the launch and instead signed a dissent that warned of risks posed by the deterioration of vital equipment aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The dissenters warned about "the continued degradation" of the environmental monitoring and health maintenance systems and exercise equipment vital to the astronauts' well-being, the newspaper said.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe told the newspaper on Wednesday that, as he understood it, there is no immediate hazard to the crew, but that conditions could deteriorate in the next six months and force the crew to abandon ship.

"If there is any indication whatsoever that this is hazardous to their continued existence, or to their health longer term, the answer is: Get aboard the Soyuz, turn down the lights and leave," O'Keefe was quoted as saying in an interview.

No officials at NASA were available to comment early on Thursday.

The new crew blasted off in a Soyuz capsule on Saturday from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and docked with the International Space Station on Monday. NASA astronaut Michael Foale and Russia's Alexander Kaleri will spend 200 days aboard the orbital platform, while Spaniard Pedro Duque will carry out a week of experiments before returning home with the outgoing team.

The Post reported that according to documents, minutes and interviews obtained by the newspaper, NASA's flight team is unable to assess the quality of air or water and the radiation levels aboard the space lab because of a growing array of hardware problems that have not been corrected.

The newspaper said interviews and documents show that NASA has been divided over the issue of safety aboard the space station. The report said some scientists and flight surgeons argue that it is too dangerous to maintain a crew under the current circumstances, while others fear that the facility could spin out of control and be lost unless astronauts are on board to handle potentially catastrophic problems.

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