Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 84

The saga of Russia’s troubled Mir space station took an unexpected turn this week, as reports surfaced that a British businessman had agreed to pay some US$100 million for a week-long ride on the station. According to initial statements by officials for Russia’s state-controlled RKK Energia company, one Peter Llewelyn had signed an agreement under which he would fly to Mir in a Soyuz rocket, and then spend a week on the station before returning to earth with Mir’s current crew (AP, UPI, April 27).

RKK Energia manages the Mir space station, which was scheduled to be retired in June of this year. In January, however, the Russian government approved a plan permitting RKK Energia to keep Mir in orbit–but only if it can procure sufficient private funding to cover the costs of doing so. As that decision was being made, reports circulated that the company had indeed found an unnamed “investor” who was prepared to provide some US$750 million–a sum sufficient to keep Mir in orbit for another three years. That deal soon fell apart, however, and RKK Energia has been looking since then for new sources of funding. It has also apparently lowered its cost estimates for Mir’s continued existence from approximately US$250 million per year to about US$100.

It is not clear that Mr. Llewelyn is the answer to RKK Energia’s financial woes, however. Russian Space Agency officials have expressed skepticism about the reported deal with the British businessman. More to the point, Mr. Llewelyn apparently told reporters in Tel Aviv on April 27 that he wants only to hitch a ride up to and back from Mir–and that the trip is part of a venture aimed at raising funds for a 2,000 bed children’s hospital outside Moscow (AP, April 28).

RKK Energia’s adventures in keeping Mir in orbit are probably not amusing U.S. space officials. They have repeatedly urged leaders of Russia’s cash-strapped space program to retire Mir so that Moscow can turn its full attention–and increasingly meager space funding–entirely to meeting Russia’s commitments under the International Space Station (ISS) project.

On April 26, Russia did at last manage to complete construction on the living module for the ISS. The mood in the United States was less than celebratory, however, given that Russia’s financial difficulties resulted in delays which have put the module a year-and-a-half behind schedule. Those delays had also kindled fears among U.S. space officials that Russia is not really committed to the ISS–where it will play second fiddle to the United States. In addition to Russia’s financial woes, however, NASA officials are reportedly now concerned that Russian-U.S. tensions over Kosovo could lead to further shortcomings in Russia’s performance for the ISS (Reuters, April 26).