Our Guy in the Sky

UPDATED 08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

IMAGINE A TRIP SO JINXED THAT your vehicle crashes, one of your fellow passengers develops heart trouble and all your possessions, right down to your toothbrush, are irretrievably lost. Then imagine that you can't just turn around and call it quits, because you're 230 miles from home—straight up.

So has passed the difficult summer of astronaut Michael Foale, the lone American aboard the battered 11-year-old Russian space station Mir—the celestial equivalent of a '65 Pinto. "I'm living," he has cheerily admitted, "like a dog on the street." A low-key, can-do computer whiz and avid windsurfer now in his fourth month alongside two Russian cosmonauts manning the station, Foale, 40, is fast emerging as the most harried—and heroic—space explorer this side of Captain Kirk, coolly handling a series of potentially life-threatening mishaps in a manner befitting his nickname at NASA: Mr. Fixit. (He's also known as MacGyver, after the dashing and handy TV hero.) "Having less than perfect conditions is ideal for Mike," says Ken Bowersox, a fellow astronaut and Foale's windsurfing buddy. "He thrives on challenges."

He has certainly had plenty to thrive on of late. On June 25, Mir collided with an out-of-control resupply ship, causing precious oxygen to pour out into space. As the danger escalated, Foale's crewmates ordered him into an escape capsule, but instead he courageously joined the frantic effort to seal off Mir's damaged module, allowing the crew to avoid abandoning ship—and very possibly saving their lives. "He pushed his fear aside," says Foale's father, Colin, 67, a British former jet pilot. "Michael has learned there is usually a good chance to find your way around any problem."

Shortly after that incident—which also sealed Foale off from prized possessions, including his family photos and his BBC videos—Mir's commander, Col. Vasily Tsibliev, developed an irregular heartbeat and was ordered by doctors to cut back his workload. Then, two weeks ago, a crew member accidentally unplugged the main power cord supplying Mir's electrical and life-support systems, forcing Foale and his stressed-to-the-max mates to grope through the dark, cold station to slowly restore power (Mir is currently running on the equivalent of only 43 100-watt lightbulbs). A proposed space walk by Foale to repair damage was postponed last week by Russian officials who tapped a fresh crew to replace the fatigued cosmonauts and perform the tricky space walk on Aug. 20. Foale will stay on board until September, working on repairs. 'The MacGyver thing is true about Mike," says U.S. shuttle commander Bill Readdy. "He can do just about anything with wires and things."

Indeed, Foale's presence on Mir may be the only bit of good fortune in an amazing string of bad breaks. "Lots of people have told me, 'If I had to be up on Mir, I'd want Mike Foale up there with me,' " says his wife, Rhonda, 39, a geologist with a master's in space science. Even the Russians are grateful that some of Mir's most serious problems occurred during Foale's watch. "Down the line," says Readdy, "Mike will turn out to be one of the big heroes in all of this."

That's a role that Foale has been prepping for ever since, as a 6-year-old fond of building radios from scratch, he spotted John Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule at an exhibit and announced, "I am going to be an astronaut." Raised in Britain, Cyprus and Germany, where his father served in the Royal Air Force (his mother, Mary, is a Minnesota-born former editor of a Chicago medical journal), Foale, a citizen of Britain and the U.S., never wavered from that goal. "His teachers thought it was so far-fetched," says dad Colin. "But he stuck with it."

A brilliant student, Foale was working toward a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Cambridge University's Queens' College when tragedy struck. In Yugoslavia on a 1980 diving expedition, he was riding in a car with his girlfriend and his brother Chris when it collided with a truck. Mike's girlfriend and Chris were killed. Foale recovered from his own injuries to earn his Ph.D. in 1982 before heading to Houston and a job in the space industry. Hired by NASA in 1983, he did ground work on space-shuttle missions while angling for a spot as an astronaut.

In 1986 he met Rhonda Butler at a party in Houston. "I was glad to meet someone so nice and so smart," recalls Rhonda, who impressed Foale with her knowledge of windsurfing. "Compared to the blind dates I'd had, this guy was 100 percent better." They were married in Aruba in 1987, the same year Foale was accepted into the astronaut program. He flew on three shuttle missions before getting picked to board Mir and perform experiments measuring the effects of space travel.

Most of those experiments were lost after the crash, and now Foale works nearly full-time fixing the ultimate fixer-upper. Once a day he exchanges e-mail with Rhonda and their children Jenna, 5, and Ian, 2, and several nights a month the family gather on a pier at their bay-front, three-bedroom condo in Seabrook, a suburb of Houston, to watch and wave as Mir is seen floating across the heavens for 10 minutes. "I used to be a worrier," says Rhonda. "Then I realized you can't live in a state of panic. All I can do is pray for Mike's safety."

She is heartened by the knowledge that her adventurous husband—whose favorite book at age 5 was Michael Goes to the Moon, about a boy who daydreams of space travel—is exactly where he wants to be. "He's got an excellent attitude about all of this," she says. "No matter what happens, I know he's not having a bad time."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS in Houston and BRYAN ALEXANDER in Cambridge

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