Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 9

Russia’s aging Mir space station may have won an improbable reprieve in recent days, though reports of a new sponsor for the station remain sketchy and a proposed new mission to Mir, tentatively set for later this year, must still clear some key hurdles. Both Russian and American officials connected to the new venture have indicated this week, however, that a firm by the name of “Gold & Apple” (identified in some reports as “Golden Apple”) has made a preliminary commitment of US$20 million to finance a full-fledged mission to Mir. Described as an international venture capital firm based in the British Virgin Islands, Gold & Apple is said to have made a variety of investments in telecommunications and space ventures. The project in question apparently also involves the Foundation for the Non-Governmental Development of Space (FINDS). A FINDS official has joined with a spokesman for RKK Energia–the Russian company which built and continues to operate Mir–in confirming information related to Gold & Apple’s interest in the Mir project. Gold & Apple has reportedly already transferred US$7 million of the total US$20 price tag for the project to RKK Energia. Precisely what Gold & Apple wants to do on Mir remains unclear (MSNBC, January 11; Reuters, Russian agencies, January 10).

Acute budgetary shortfalls led the Russian government last year to decide to terminate funding for the perennially underfunded space station. The government did grant RKK Energia and the Russian Space Agency the right to keep Mir in orbit if they could come up with sufficient private funding to do so (estimated at more than US$200 million annually). But the efforts of Russian space officials to lay hand on this money had ended unsuccessfully–and in several cases comically. All indications were that Mir would meet a fiery death in earth’s atmosphere sometime this spring. To prepare for that eventuality, the orbit of the space station was lowered last year and the station has been unmanned since August.

But Russian space officials have remained strongly opposed to Mir’s destruction, and the existing plans for it may now be changing. A Progress cargo ship will apparently be sent to Mir on January 31. According to one report, it will contain fuel, food rations and approximately 150 kilograms of compressed air–Mir has been leaking air for months–all to prepare the station for the arrival of a crew in late March. What remains unclear, apparently, is whether that crew will be there to prepare Mir for destruction, or whether its stay will be connected with the start of the new project and thus the prolongation of Mir’s life in space. The Russian government will apparently meet on January 20 to decide whether to approve the new plan being submitted by Russian space officials (AP, January 11; Reuters, January 12;, January 10).

What probably can be counted on is that NASA’s exasperation with the Russian space establishment will continue to grow in light of the latest announcements out of Moscow. U.S. space officials have repeatedly expressed their displeasure over Moscow’s continued commitment to Mir, believing with justification that the Russian space program does not have the resources to meet its obligations to the sixteen-nation International Space Station (ISS) project while simultaneously maintaining Mir. U.S. frustrations in this regard undoubtedly grew this week following an announcement from Moscow that, due to problems with Russia’s Proton booster, the launching of a key component of the ISS will be delayed until August. That delay, only the latest to be caused by Moscow’s problems, means that the ISS project is now more than two years behind schedule.

Should the latest Mir project come to fruition, moreover, the ISS could ultimately find itself competing for commercial projects with Mir (MSNBC, January 11). That would be no laughing matter in Washington, and could lead to fresh criticism in the United States of Washington’s willingness so far to underwrite significant portions of Russia’s contribution to the ISS project.

For those hoping (in this connection) that the latest project to save Mir will prove as futile as the efforts that preceded it, there may have been at least one reason for optimism yesterday. Russian space officials said that the crew flying the March 30 mission to Mir could include movie actor Vladimir Steklov. An earlier proposal aimed at raising revenue for Mir had Steklov going to Mir and starring as a cosmonaut unwilling to abandon the space station (AP, January 11). That idea never got off the ground, and its revival now suggests that there is still a gimmicky side to Moscow’s efforts to save Mir.