Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 134

Amid the unsuccessful efforts to raise new space station funding, the Russian government reached several decisions on Mir. On May 21 Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an instruction to the government which granted Energia permission to keep Mir aloft so long as the authorities were able to find private funding. Government funding was to end in August. Then, on June 1, a panel of top Russian space officials issued a recommendation which called for the three cosmonauts currently on Mir–two Russians and a Frenchman–to abandon the station in August if new funding were not found. It also advocated that the station be left unmanned to orbit the earth until early next year, when it is expected to burn up upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere (AP, June 1).

Mir has been without a crew only briefly in its thirteen-year history, and the decision to leave it unmanned while orbiting the earth drew some criticism from both Russia and abroad. A NASA official warned that doing this increased the risk of an accident aboard Mir, and could also complicate efforts to bring the space station back to earth. A Russian cosmonaut pointed out that any subsequent dockings with Mir would be more risky because there would be no crew aboard the ship to help coordinate the docking (Reuters, June 2).

By most accounts, the decision to leave Mir unmanned and in orbit was based not on safety considerations, but rather on a hope that funding could somehow still be found and the space station saved. In order to allay some of the fears that control could be lost over the space station and that Mir could come crashing back to earth, Russian space officials had intended to install a new navigational system. But last week’s crash of the Proton rocket in Kazakhstan could force a delay or cancellation of the July 14 launching of a supply ship that is scheduled to bring the new system to Mir. The launching is especially critical because the cosmonauts aboard Mir will reportedly need about a month to install and test the system before their departure in August (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, July 7).

Moscow is now using that argument in an effort to browbeat the government of Kazakhstan into allowing the launch from Baikonur on July 14, as scheduled. But the real blame for the current difficult situation would seem to lie with those Russian government and space officials who have adopted risky policies in a last-ditch push to save a space station that the country can no longer afford. Now, with time running down, Moscow faces the challenge of getting the new navigation and other needed supplies to Mir. In addition, the aging space station reportedly began recently to lose air pressure. While Russian space officials say that the air leak is not serious, it certainly adds yet another concern to an already tense situation (Reuters, Russian agencies, July 10).