Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 93

The future of Russia’s fourteen-year-old Mir space station remains a question mark this week, despite a flurry of activity related to the aging vessel which began early last month and a more recent pledge from Russia’s president to support the station. Russian space officials had intended to down the venerable space station this year. That decision was forced by both money shortages–which led the Russian government to terminate funding for the station last year–and the inability of the Russian space establishment to raise enough capital on its own from private sources to keep Mir aloft.

Just when the situation looked bleakest, however, Mir won a twin reprieve. Earlier this year a private corporation, MirCorp, poured US$20 million into a space station project. According to some reports, the Amsterdam-based company also pledged to come up with some US$200 million more in the months to come for the station. Moreover, on April 12, then President-elect Vladimir Putin promised a renewal of government financial support for the station as well. Those developments, together with the flight of two cosmonauts to the long-abandoned station in early April (a flight funded by the MirCorp funding), led to a brief and unexpected period of optimism for the long-suffering Russian space establishment. It has lobbied hard to keep the last jewel of the once-vaunted Soviet space program in orbit.

If spokesmen for the Russian Space Agency are to be believed, however, the future of Mir is still anything but assured. In comments made to the press on April 26, agency director Yuri Koptev said that Russia might, in fact, have to destroy the space station as early as October of this year if additional funding for Mir cannot be procured. The source of Koptev’s pessimism was not clear, but he implied that space officials were skeptical that MirCorp would be able to come up with the money that it had pledged to the Mir station (AFP, AP, April 26).

Skepticism about MirCorp would seem to be justified. The private Russian-U.S. company has announced plans to ultimately privatize Mir and turn it into a sort of orbiting “space hotel,” one which would charge wealthy tourists from US$30-40 million for a week in space. MirCorp directors are said also to see the space station as a possible vehicle for movie studios, web sites, corporate advertisers and sundry other space businesses. The company, however, has apparently provided few details about its specific plans for Mir, though on April 6 it did sign a financing agreement with Energiya, the Russian company that maintains the station. The agreement calls for MirCorp to provide the necessary financing to keep Mir aloft for the second half of 2000. But a Russian Space Agency official seemed unconvinced. “I strongly doubt that there will be volunteers to go into space for 30 million dollars,” he was quoted as saying. “Mir is not a luxury hotel [and] living conditions are difficult there” (Globe and Mail, April 5; BBC, April 13; AFP, April 26).

The comments by the Russian Space Agency officials also raised questions as to whether the Russian government would come up with funding of its own for Mir, as Putin had pledged. The Russian president’s comments came during a ceremony marking Cosmonaut’s Day, and reflected yet another effort by Putin to appeal to Russian national pride and to promote a national revival. “The space sector is not only a prestigious sector which makes our country a great power,” he said, “but it is also linked to economic and scientific development” (Reuters, Russian agencies, April 12). For all of that, it is not clear where the Russian government will come up with funding to keep Mir aloft in the event that efforts to privatize the station come up short. The Russian government has earmarked only about US$120 million for its entire space program this year (BBC, April 13). Estimates of the cost to maintain Mir annually have run as high as US$200 million.

The new Russian effort to save Mir has also exacerbated tensions between Moscow and Washington over the US$60 billion International Space Station (ISS) project. Putin did pledge to meet Russia’s obligations under the ISS project as well as those related to Mir. But Russian delays, caused in large part by funding shortages, have already helped to put the ISS project some two years behind schedule. NASA officials, not surprisingly, are concerned that a renewed focus by Russia on Mir will only increase the pressure on the Russian Space Agency’s limited financial resources while further undermining its ability to fulfill commitments to the ISS. Further Russian delays, moreover, are likely also to fuel criticism at home of the Clinton administration’s space cooperation policies with Russia, and possibly of its assistance to Moscow more generally.