Commander's Mother Prays for Mir

OREKHOVKA, Ukraine -- As the commander of Russia's crippled Mir orbital station grappled with problems in outer space, his mother had more down-to-earth concerns about a ship she said her son told her was long overdue for a refit.

"The only thing I want and pray to God for is that Vasily comes back alive and healthy," Valentina Tsibliyev said in a weekend interview, sitting in her tiny whitewashed yard.

When he returns in mid-August, his mother will be able to tell Vasily Tsibliyev that his beloved stepfather died of a heart attack four months ago.

Problems have plagued Tsibliyev's mission, starting with a fire after he and flight engineer Alexander Lazutkin went aboard Mir in February and culminating in the station's worst-ever accident when a cargo ship Tsibliyev was maneuvering by remote control slammed into one of its modules and punctured it.

Since the crash on June 25, a mystery liquid leaked into space, stress gave Tsibliyev a heart problem and Mir's computer crashed when one of the three crewmen pulled out the wrong cable.

Sharp words have passed between mission control and the crew. The commander's mother, though, has no doubts the blame lies with the aging technology of the 11-year-old station.

"He told me before that they should have repaired the station ages ago. Otherwise it would just crash at some point," the 64-year-old pensioner said. "Now he has overstrained his heart."

The mission doctor said on Monday that Tsibliyev's irregular heartbeat, first noticed a week ago, had become normal following a course of sedatives and heart medication.

His mother still lives in the same house in Orekhovka in the Crimea where Tsibliyev was born 43 years ago and where he lived in childhood poverty.

There is no running water, the refrigerator is broken and only her garden and monthly pension of $20 support her. For news of her son, she borrows a neighbor's telephone to call her daughter-in-law Larisa in Moscow. She also goes to the neighbors to watch television every day to know what is going on with her son.

"Vasily dreamed about becoming a pilot since he was just a very small boy. He thought of nothing else. He drew pictures of planes -- and every time in his air battles our side won against the enemies," she recalls. "I kept telling him 'Vasya, you can't always win. That's life.'"

She has yet to tell Tsibliyev of the death of his stepfather, also named Vasily.

"His stepfather was like a father to him. They never had a quarrel," Valentina said. "He doesn't know his father is no longer alive. How can I tell him if he is in space, especially when not everything's all right up there? It'll make things harder for him. I'll tell him when he lands and recovers."

Her favorite pastime is looking at old family photos and reading old letters.

"Mom, don't worry, everything will be fine because you brought me up in the best way," he wrote from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in 1993.

"I am sure I chose this path and this fate correctly because I cannot imagine not doing this job.

"See you on our native, beautiful and beloved Earth."