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"Mir' crew cheered leader, joked

Michael Foale spent much of his Mir mission trying to console his distressed Russian commander and reassure him that the nearly catastrophic collision wasn't all his fault and that being banned from spacewalking wasn't so awful.

Wednesday, in his first news conference since returning to Earth this month, Foale described his Russian crewmates as misunderstood heroes and recalled his attempts to cheer up commander Vasily Tsibliyev, who assumed _ correctly _ that some of his countrymen would blame him for the crash.

Tsibliyev was guiding a cargo ship by remote control in a docking test when it slammed into the Russian space station June 25, piercing the hull of Mir and cutting power by half.

"What Vasily felt would happen was . . . it would be simplest for organizations that did not want to accept responsibility just to blame him," Foale said.

"And so the whole effort of Sasha (Lazutkin) and myself was to convince him that the world knows about this accident. We know that many, many people were involved in the decision to do this test, and it turned out to be a great mistake."

Foale said Tsibliyev simply did not have enough navigation information at his disposal.

The low point for Tsibliyev, Foale said, was when he developed an irregular heartbeat from all the stress and was barred from making an "internal spacewalk" to salvage station power.

But Foale said he never lost faith in his commander's ability to lead. "It was quite clear that Vasily was in control of himself," Foale said. "He was just thinking very hard about the severe consequences that could befall him."

Foale, 40, a British-born astrophysicist, said he and his crewmates managed to keep their sense of humor. Foale passed along Mir jokes from the ground, and the three had a good laugh. They talked about which actor should play which spaceman in the inevitable movie. Foale wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The men also got a kick out of Tsibliyev's reaction every time there was a bump: He would suck in his breath.