Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 87

A Russian Space Agency official announced on April 28 that the problem-plagued Mir space station will be gradually lowered in its orbit and, sometime next year, will be abandoned and allowed to plunge to its destruction. According to Yuri Semenov, president of the state-run Energia, a cargo ship set to dock with Mir on May 17 will use its engines to begin pulling Mir closer to Earth. That process will be repeated over the coming months as other ships dock with the space station. The plan is to lower Mir from its current orbit some 250 miles above the earth to one of about ninety miles by December of next year. Mir’s final plunge could be postponed if delays continue in the launching of the new international space station, Semenov said.

Semenov’s announcement that the twelve-year-old space station would soon be retired appeared to catch some officials in Russia’s space program by surprise. But the station — whose service life was originally projected at three years — suffered a number of mechanical problems last year and narrowly survived a collision with a cargo ship. Financial pressures appear also to have played a part in the decision. The Russian government cut spending on space by a third in this year’s budget, while the United States has reportedly exerted pressure on the Russian Space Agency to devote more of its resources to the new space station and less to Mir. Russian delays have helped put the launching of the international space station considerably behind schedule.

Semenov, meanwhile, bemoaned Mir’s upcoming demise as being also the end of Russia’s lead in an important area of space exploration. “The end of Mir will mark the end of Russia’s world leadership in orbital space exploration,” Semenov said. “Henceforth, Russia will only be able to perform supporting roles in space.” Mir’s final plunge into the atmosphere, meanwhile, may not occur without some controversy. Some observers have charged that the 120-ton station may not burn up entirely during its reentry and that fragments from the station could pose a danger. Semenov said only that the remains are expected to land in the ocean. (AP, Itar-Tass, April 28; Itar-Tass, The Washington Post, April 30)