Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 158

The penultimate chapter in the storied history of Russia’s Mir space station appears to have been written over the weekend, as what is likely to be the last of the station’s manned crews departed Mir and returned to earth. The August 28 touchdown in Kazakhstan, which brought cosmonauts Viktor Afanasyev, Sergei Avdeev and Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Haignere to a site near the Baikonur cosmodrome, seems likely also to mark the end of an era for the Soviet/Russian space program. Tight budgets brought about by Russia’s swift economic decline have left the government unable to pay the estimated US$250 million per year it would have cost to maintain Mir in orbit. Russia will continue to play a key role in the International Space Station project, but that role will clearly be a subordinate one to the United States. For that and related reasons, Russian space officials had hoped to find a way to keep Mir aloft. The thirteen-year-old station’s impending demise is being much lamented in Moscow.

The core module of Mir was launched into orbit in early 1986, and the station was expected initially to operate for only five years. Thirteen years later, however, it remains the world’s longest lasting and now the sole operative space station. Some 106 crew members have manned Mir over that thirteen-year period, and the station has been host to 19,000 scientific experiments, twenty research programs and seventy-seven space walks. Seven NASA astronauts spent time aboard Mir and nine shuttles linked up with the station. Thanks to their service on Mir, Russian cosmonauts own international records for the most time spent in space. Sergei Avdeev, a member of the final Mir crew, has spent a record total of 748 days in orbit (Itar-Tass, August 27).

Mir–which has been without a crew, briefly, only twice before–will remain unmanned over the next half-year while continuing to orbit the earth at a height of approximately 220 miles. Last month, following resolution of a dispute with Kazakhstan, Russia sent a cargo ship to Mir carrying an advanced navigation system. The system took a month to install and will allow ground crews to control the station from earth. The move was taken to ensure that the increasingly decrepit ship maintains its orbit and does not come crashing back to earth out of control. As plans now stand, ground controllers are to shut down the station’s main computers in about a week, although some basic systems will continue to operate. Then, next February or March, a “liquidator crew” will be sent to Mir to begin final preparations for bringing it down. A cargo ship will be sent to the station soon thereafter to nudge it down into a lower orbit. If all goes according to plan, the station will burn up upon entering the atmosphere over a remote portion of the Pacific Ocean (Itar-Tass, August 27; Washington Post, August 28).