The fate of Russia’s Mir space station remains uncertain this week, despite a January 22nd government decision to extend the life of the twelve-year-old vessel by anther three years. Russian space officials said yesterday that they had still not finalized a deal under which an unnamed foreign sponsor would put up a reported US$750 million over the next three years to keep the space station in orbit. A spokesman for the Energia rocket corporation, which owns Mir, said that a number of details remained to be worked out on the deal. “I’d say its 50-50 right now,” he was quoted as saying, “because no concrete decision has been reached” (Reuters, January 26).
The Mir space station was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union in February 1986 and has long outlived not only the U.S. Skylab and previous Soviet space stations, but its own projected service life as well. In recent years, however, the Russian government’s cash crunch and resulting sharp reductions in the country’s space budget appeared to signal Mir’s imminent doom. Those negative developments were compounded by a series of mishaps on the space station in 1997, and by Russia’s difficulties–both financial and technical–in meeting its commitments to the International Space Station (ISS) project. Last year–under prodding from Washington, which had been pumping millions of dollars in aid into the Russian space program, and which insisted that Moscow concentrate on the ISS–Russian space officials decided to retire Mir this coming June.
That decision did not sit well with many in Russia’s space establishment, who viewed Mir as the last jewel in the Soviet Union’s once proud space program. These same officials argued that, with proper financing, Mir could remain in orbit for at least several more years. Their desire to preserve the space station appeared to be based at least in part on a fear that Russia would be reduced to a bit player in the ISS project, which includes Japan and the European Union but is likely to be dominated by Washington.
Those wanting to save Mir were rewarded on January 22 when the Russian government approved a resolution–signed by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–which conditionally extended the life of the station by three years. As a deputy head of the state-run Russian Space Agency told reporters, if the Energia corporation “can find nonbudgetary money or… sponsors, then the Mir station will continue to exist. If they don’t find the money, then we’ll follow the plan [for a June retirement] which was approved earlier” (Reuters, January 22).
QUESTION MARKS REMAIN.