Cash-Strapped Russia Ditches Mir Orbiter, a Symbol of Soviet Past : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Cash-Strapped Russia Ditches Mir Orbiter, a Symbol of Soviet Past

MOSCOW, Mar 7, 2001 -- (Agence France Presse) Once a proud symbol of Soviet success in space, Russia's 15-year-old Mir station will shortly come hurtling back to Earth, a victim of post Soviet economics.

Russian space chiefs, already pledged to a costly participation in the International Space Station (ISS), took the fateful decision to abandon Mir last October after it became clear Moscow could no longer support both space projects.

The accident-prone space station, which suffered a humiliating series of glitches and near disasters in recent years, will splash down into the Pacific in mid-March somewhere between New Zealand and Chile.

But the 140-ton orbiter's checkered past, and the fact that nothing of that size has ever been brought back to Earth before, have sparked concerns around the world about the risk to human life from stray debris.

Keen to dispel such fears, Russia accepted offers of help from the U.S. and European space agencies, NASA and the ESA, to compute the decaying orbit of Mir, whose date with destruction was nevertheless put back from late February due to unforeseen snags.

The total operation -- taking Mir out of orbit, burning up much of its megaton mass as it re-enters the atmosphere, and tracking what is left to what should be its point of impact in the Pacific -- should only take "two to three days," according to Russia's mission control.

Those parts of the station's component modules that do not burn up in the atmosphere should fall to Earth, over a swathe some 6,000 kilometers (4,000 miles) long and 200 kilometers (125 miles) wide.

However, international space experts have warned that if anything were to go wrong during the operation, sections that do not burn up in the atmosphere could land on terra firma. Several nations, notably Japan, have voiced their concern.

It is quite possible that steel spherical bottles, parts of large module frames, gyros and rocket engines would hit land, experts say.

Last week authorities in Germany -- several thousand miles away from the target area -- said they were "following with attention" Mir's trajectory, and for many the official Russian estimate of the chances of an uncontrolled descent -- "less than one percent" -- is far too high for comfort.

Despite losing radio contact with Mir for 24 hours in December, Russian space chiefs signalled their irreversible resolve to destroy the space station at the end of the following month, launching a Progress supply ship to help nudge Mir out of orbit.

The operation has not been without its melancholy moments since Mir remains a powerful symbol for many Russians of the country's glorious past as a pioneer in space.

Mir's demise, as it tumbles to a watery grave, is a far cry from the heyday of the late 1950s and early 1960s when Russia put the first satellite (Sputnik), the first dog (Laika) and the first human being (Yury Gagarin) into space.

Twenty-eight different crews followed in the trail blazed by Gagarin, living aboard the space station during its 15-year odyssey, gradually adapting to the cramped conditions, learning in their weightlessness to navigate around its sterile, hard-edged contours.

"For us Mir was a real home in orbit. It's very sad when you think that a part of your life is just going to burst into flames like that," lamented Sergei Avdeyev, who spent 748 days aboard the orbiter, a record space mission.

Last month, Russia's State Duma (lower house) passed a resolution calling on the government not to destroy Mir but to turn the decrepit platform into a science complex at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars.

But it is not just a question of patriotism or nostalgia: hundreds of Russians have protested outside the headquarters of the nation's space program, fearing Mir's destruction will lead to a large number of job losses in the space industry.

The Mir project alone created nearly 200,000 jobs, and former cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin has warned that the orbiter's destruction will effectively put an end to Russia's going it alone in space.

"After the destruction of Mir it will take us years to relaunch a national program of manned flights," said Lazutkin, who spent six months aboard Mir in 1997.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 12, 2001


Yet another article on Mir's upcoming plunge, this one in the New York Times and longer and better than most:

-- Andre Weltman (, March 13, 2001.

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