MOSCOW, Aug. 27 -- In a few hours, a three-man crew of Russian and French cosmonauts will turn off the lights in the 13-year-old Mir space station before abandoning the world's first permanently manned orbiting space station and ending an era of continuous Russian presence in space. Mir's 27th crew, consisting of Russians Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere, will climb into a Soyuz space capsule and fly back to Earth at 1:14 am Moscow time Saturday (5:14 pm EDT Friday), leaving the 130-ton complex floating on remote control for six months before it eventual falls to Earth and disintegrates in the planet's atmosphere. Avdeyev, holds the current record for time spent in space, a whopping 748 days. Afanasyev, the station's commander, isn't far behind, with 544 days. The three cosmonauts, who have been on Mir since February, are expected to reach Earth shortly before 4:34 am Moscow time (8:34 pm EDT Friday). The first part of what eventually became the sprawling Mir complex was launched into orbit on Feb. 19, 1986, shortly after the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger. Western scientists watched in amazement as their Soviet colleagues contemplated using Mir's unmatched resources as a continuously functioning space laboratory. However, Mir was not designed to stay in orbit for more than five years, and a replacement space station had been on the cards at time of launch. History meted out a different fate for Mir, which set endurance records as financing for the space program dwindled on the eve of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
Desperate crews entered a daily struggle for survival aboard Mir, which experienced an increasingly varied number of ailments as wear and tear let themselves become known over time. In one bizarre episode when politics disrupted the space program, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was virtually abandoned and forgotten on Mir for six months as the anti-Gorbachev coup was launched, collapsed, and led to the death of the U.S.S.R. Krikalev had been due to return to Earth only days before the failed August coup, but the turmoil in Moscow overshadowed any thought of bringing the man back from space. When Krikalev eventually returned to Earth, as if from a time warp, the country he knew had vanished, changed unrecognizably by events of which he had little knowledge, his home town was renamed and his once- significant wages had turned into pennies that would not keep a man above the poverty line. As the leaders of a newly-emerging Russia let the country's decades- old competition with the West lapse, space was crossed off the list of priorities for funding, and the space program increasingly tried to pay its way by arranging flights for hire to a multitude of cosmonauts from all over the world. Over the past few years, NASA has practically subsidized Mir's running costs by sending astronauts to stay on the space station and study the effects of long-term space travel. In 1997, Mir turned from being the pride of Russia into a daily headache, when a chain of serious accidents threatened to leave the station in unmanned, uncontrolled orbit. As NASA and other space agencies moved toward creation of a new, reliable international space station, it became increasingly clear that Russia could not afford to take part in both the ISS project and keep Mir in orbit. The Russian government finally pulled the plug on Mir's finances this year, and, despite a frantic search for private sponsors to keep the station going, the Russian space program faced the inevitable closure of Mir. Contemplating a future without Mir, the crown jewel of Russia's space program, scientists in Moscow fear they may be left out as the U.S., Europe, Japan and China power ahead with their own space project. Taking this fear into consideration, as well as the fact that Russia has gained vast experience of running a space station, Russia has been given a prominent role in the construction of the new, replacement station. A Russian cosmonaut will be a member of the first crew to fly to the international space station, signifying a continuation of Russia's presence in space. The current crew has installed computers and equipment to keep Mir in unmanned orbit for another six months, after which a Progress freighter is expected to push Mir into a lower orbit, leading to its eventual fall to Earth, where it will partially burn up before the remains plunge into a remote area of the Pacific Ocean. Officials at Russian Mission Control retain a certain optimism, hoping that a miracle might still save Mir from destruction. Yuri Grigoryev, the deputy chief of Energia Corp., which runs Mir, says the station's life could still be extended. He says the station is working properly now that major problems plaguing it have been fixed, and a decision to scrap Mir is not yet final. Admitting 'there is no money' for Mir, he is alarmed that, should the worst happen, there is also no money to launch a freighter that will push Mir out of orbit. Grigoryev told the Itar-Tass news service today that he is worried, because the station and its destruction remain Energia's responsibility. Russian Space Agency director Yuri Koptev also believes Mir should be saved. Koptev says the station can continue flying until the year 2003, by which time the ISS station will be taking shape. He is quick to point out that Mir's demise will strip the builders of the new station of a working base in space, leaving them to rely on quick space shuttle visits to the building site before a permanently- based crew can move in. ---
Copyright 1999 by United Press International. All rights reserved. ---