Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 158

Although Russian space officials have dismissed the criticism, there have been some concerns expressed abroad that control over Mir could be lost in the months ahead and that the ship could come crashing back to earth in a dangerous fashion (Reuters, August 27). To add to those worries, the Russian space establishment has apparently not yet managed to secure sufficient funding even to commission the two booster rockets and two space vehicles needed to bring Mir down properly. A top official for Energia, the Russian space corporation, was quoted on August 27 as saying that “so far there is no money for this.” Indeed, that same official, Yuri Grigoriev, also insisted that Mir is still functioning well and that it could be maintained in space until 2003-2005 (Itar-Tass, August 27). Grigoriev’s comments reflect the sentiments of many others in the Russian space program, who also want to maintain Mir and who have shown little enthusiasm for Russia’s second fiddle role in the International Space Station (ISS) project.

Mir’s fate was by most accounts sealed in January of this year, however, when the Russian government under then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov approved a plan extending the life of Mir by three years–while simultaneously terminating government funding for the station. In effect, the Energia rocket corporation, which runs Mir, was told to find private funding to secure the US$250 million needed yearly to keep the station in orbit. The efforts of space station officials to raise funding since that time have sometimes bordered on comic. Unnamed Australian businessmen were reported to be the first saviors of Mir. That deal, if it ever actually existed, fell through. Then a British businessman with a somewhat checkered past was brought into the picture but soon left it, having achieved nothing. A motion picture project–to be filmed on Mir–also came to naught. A fundraising drive by a group of Russian cosmonauts netted little more than some US$20,000 (see the Monitor, July 13).

The government appeared at last to bow fully to the inevitable late last month. On July 21, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said publicly that it was time to retire the aging station. In remarks which must have been heard with joy in the United States, Klebanov made it clear that the government could no longer afford to operate Mir and that it should instead devote its limited financial resources for space to the ISS project. Indeed, Klebanov suggested that Moscow had been feeling the heat not only from the United States, but from other members of the international ISS consortium as well. The ISS project could not go forward without Russia’s cooperation, Klebanov said, and it was a “matter of honor” for Russia to meet its commitments to its international partners (AP, Russian agencies, July 21). The ISS project is now some two years behind schedule, in large part because of delays by Russia in completing key parts of the station.

A day later a top official from within Russia’s space establishment itself reiterated Klebanov’s points. Yuri Koptev, general director of the Russian Space Agency, said that Moscow was simply unable to fund two manned space programs simultaneously, and that Mir would have to go. He also expressed concerns of his own that tardiness by Russia in bringing down Mir could indeed result in a loss of control over the station and a possibly destructive reentry into earth’s atmosphere (AP, Russian agencies, July 22).

In expressing their readiness to dispense with Mir, however, both Koptev and Klebanov appeared to have their eyes on factors other than just a safe reentry for Mir and Russia’s honor before its ISS partners. Koptev made clear that Russia is receiving some US$60 million in revenues from its participation in the ISS program. “This is much more than the [Russian] state budget could provide” to the country’s ailing aerospace industry, he said (Russian agencies, July 22).

Klebanov, who oversees defense industrial issues within the government, appeared to be more concerned with security issues. He intimated that funding for Mir was eating up financial resources which might be better devoted to restoring Russia’s military space system. He lamented Russia’s recent difficulties in launching and maintaining the country’s military satellites, and underscored how “events in Yugoslavia have vividly demonstrated the significance of space technology in organizing control of combat action by troops” (Russian agencies, July 21). His remark suggested that space funding freed up by the destruction of Mir might not go entirely to meeting Russia’s obligations under the ISS project, but that some of it at least could be directed to the Defense Ministry.