Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 198

If the words of Russian space officials over the past few days are to be believed, Mir–the Soviet-launched space station which seemingly has had nine lives–may be living out the last of them. Yesterday Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who oversees space-related issues within the government, was quoted as saying that Moscow plans to bring the space station to down to a fiery death in the earth’s atmosphere sometime in late February of 2001. Klebanov’s remarks apparently do not reflect any formal decision at this point, but sources in Moscow have suggested that the decision to terminate Mir will likely be made official sometime in the next few weeks. As with so much else in Russia these days, the crux of the problem regarding Mir is financial. The government is unwilling to put up the money necessary to keep the station aloft–estimated at US$250 million per year–while MirCorp, the joint venture which has been leasing the station, has been unable to raise sufficient private funding to accomplish the same purpose. A decision on the matter has grown critical because the station has been losing altitude since its last crew departed this past June. Russian space officials say they must lift the orbit of Mir now so that it does not enter an uncontrolled and possibly threatening plunge into the atmosphere.

Klebanov’s remarks yesterday follow a meeting of top Russian space officials on October 19. Discussions at that meeting apparently reflected the government’s growing conviction that MirCorp will be unable to raise the funding necessary to maintain Mir. The Russian government agency RKK Energia continues to own Mir, but it began leasing commercial rights to the station last year. MirCorp is based in Amsterdam and is owned 60 percent by Russian interests and 40 percent by American investors. The company is reported to have raised and spent some US$40 million on Mir this year. It also sponsored a seventy-three-day mission to the station by two Russian astronauts, the first space mission of its kind to be conducted privately. But the company has been unable to come up with the funds necessary to keep the station in orbit. Russian officials were reportedly upset by the fact that MirCorp failed to produce the money necessary for last week’s launching of a Progress cargo craft to Mir. The flight brought fuel and supplies to the space station.

MirCorp president Jeffrey Manber, meanwhile, has been in Moscow over the past week trying to convince Russian officials that the company does have more funding in the pipeline and that the Russian government should not take any immediate decision to terminate Mir. While Russian officials have apparently not fully foreclosed the possibility that Manber may be able to win yet one more reprieve for Mir, they are thought to be skeptical of his plans for raising money. Those plans include a scheme–announced earlier this month–to raise US$117 million for various Mir projects through a stock offering. A representative for the company said that MirCorp has also signed commercial agreements which would bring in tens of millions of dollars. They include a US$20 million deal to send an American financier, Dennis Tito, to Mir as a space tourist, and another US$20 million project by which a U.S.-based reality television series would send a winning contestant into space (Space.com, September 19; Moscow Times, October 13; New York Times, October 19; AP, October 19, 23; AFP, October 22).

Russian discussions over how best to deal with Mir come amid continuing pressures from the United States to ditch the station so that Moscow can focus all its space resources and funding on the International Space Station (ISS). The schedule for deploying the ISS is already several years behind schedule, a fact that has been blamed in large part on Russian delays in preparing a key module for the new station. But government officials in Moscow, meanwhile, are reportedly reticent to take a final decision to terminate Mir (Segodnya, October 20). The station, which was launched in 1986 and has already long exceeded its service life, remains a point of pride for the Russian people and one of the few remaining symbols of the Soviet Union’s superpower status. Some Russian space officials are said to resent the fact that Moscow must play second fiddle to the United States in the ISS project, and they have been among those who have pushed the hardest for the government to find some way to keep Mir aloft.