October 13, 1999

Mir station leaking air and losing altitude

The Mir space station, unmanned since August, has been leaking air into space and gradually falling to Earth, but neither problem should cause the station to crash or become uninhabitable, a news agency said today. As long as the air leak doesn't increase, the station will remain capable of supporting life until March or April of 2000 - when the final crew of cosmonauts is scheduled to return to the craft, Deputy Flight Controller Viktor Blagov said.

Once aboard the Mir, the crew will be able either to patch the breach or adjust the air pressure by boosting the oxygen supply, Blagov said, according to the Interfax news agency. But if pressure on board falls too low, the last crew won't be able to get inside the craft, he said. The air pressure cannot be corrected by remote control.

Officials have said the crew would spend about a month aboard the station, gradually lowering its orbit. After leaving, ground controllers would then fire rockets to send the 140-ton station to Earth's atmosphere, where it would burn and fall into the Pacific Ocean. But controllers said the Mir already was loosing about 200 yards of altitude a day. Blagov said this also shouldn't be a problem, though, as controllers could fire boosters on an attached Progress supply ship to lift the craft if necessary.

Space officials postponed Mir's demise until next year in hopes of finding private sponsors to pay its $250 million annual operating costs. The funds are unlikely to be found, though, and the government will no longer provide the money.

Without the 13-year-old Mir - the last symbol of the country's pioneering role in space - Russia will have no major space project of its own. The U.S. space agency NASA has urged Moscow to bring the Mir down and concentrate its scarce resources on the new International Space Station, which has fallen behind schedule because of Russia's failure to build key components on time.



Mir's last full-time crew returns to Earth

For the first time in 10 years, there's nobody in space.

In an emotional overture to a fiery grand finale, an international crew abandoned Russia's aging space station Mir Friday, reducing Earth's orbital population to zero.

NASA's International Space Station - which still lacks living quarters - won't be opened until April because its shuttles are grounded for fleetwide wiring inspections.

What's more, the exodus from Mir - which had been occupied for 3,641 consecutive days - set the stage for a dramatic suicide dive back through the atmosphere next year.

"This is a prelude to the big ending for Mir," said Dennis Newkirk, author of the Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight.

The impending demise of Mir - the last of eight space stations launched by the former Soviet Union - also marks the end of 28 years of Russian dominance in Earth orbit.

"We went to the moon, but they elected to establish orbital space around the Earth as their domain, and Mir really is the culmination of that effort," said Jerry Grey, director of science and technology policy for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

"What were basically seeing here is the end of the Cold War in a true sense," added David Webb, founder of University of North Dakota's Space Studies Institute.

"The Cold War propelled the space programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union, and this is the end of the era of single nations going it alone in space."

Strapped into a bug-shaped spaceship, Mir commander Viktor Afanasyev, flight engineer Sergei Avdeyev and French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere pulled out of the station at 5:17 p.m. EDT.

Their departure followed a hectic two weeks in which the crew shut down station laboratories, filled up its garbage scow and switched off all but essential systems.

With the station left on autopilot, the cosmonauts and their French colleague landed on the steppes of central Asia at 8:35 p.m. EDT.

Back in Moscow, a grass roots push to save the station continued.

For the past month, Russian scientists, politicians, clergymen, writers, journalists, musicians and cosmonauts have been lobbying the Duma - the lower house of parliament - for money to keep Mir aloft.

"It must become a national concern to prolong the life of the orbital complex, the pride of the Russian science," Nikolai Ryzhkov, an influential politician, told reporters gathered at a news conference earlier this week.

But it's unlikely that Mir - which was launched at the height of the Cold War and flew through the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union - will survive the collapse of the Russian economy.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the government cut off cash for Mir on Aug. 1 so scarce money could be put toward the Russian segment of the new $60 billion international station being built with the U.S. and 14 other nations.

Russian aerospace giant RSC Energia holds exclusive rights to operate Mir on a commercial basis and insists the old outpost could fly another three years.

But the company so far has been unable to find private investors willing to pay the $100 million to $250 million it takes to run the station on a yearly basis.

The company's scramble for cash is expected to continue for another six months while ground controllers gradually lower Mir ever closer to the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

And while aerospace analysts doubt Energia can find the money to keep the 130-ton station afloat, they expect the drama to drag out like a soap opera.

"They're going to push it as far as they possibly can because having a space station is better than not having a space station," Newkirk said. "I mean, it gives certain people power and prestige and they are going to cling to it as long as they can."

A new crew, meanwhile, is being trained for a short mission that might be needed to make final preparations for what would amount to a burial-at-sea.

The cosmonauts would fly to Mir in February or March to oversee the arrival of a fuel-filled Russian space freighter.

The freighter would periodically fire onboard thrusters, nudging Mir into an orbit about 125 to 135 miles above Earth. The crew then would abandon ship and return to Earth before the freighter gives Mir a powerful last push into the upper atmosphere.

Most of the T-shaped cluster of labs would disintegrate as temperatures exceeding 3000 degrees Fahrenheit burned up the station like a marshmallow tossed on an open fire.

TV and toaster-sized chunks, however, are likely to survive, so the atmospheric reentry will be targeted over uninhabited areas of the Pacific Ocean.

Whether this can be done safely is anybody's guess.

Charred wreckage from the first U.S. space station - Skylab - rained on the Australian outback in 1979, capping what had become a media event of Chicken-Little proportions.

Mir's immediate predecessor - the Soviet's Salyut 7 space station - suffered serious systems failures in its final days and made an out-of-control over remote areas of South America in 1991.

Today, ground controllers at Russia's Mission Control Center in the town of Korolev north of Moscow make about $200 a month but often go half-years without pay.

Many moonlight. They sell homegrown vegetables at market, drive westerners around Moscow or peddle T-shirts on the streets to make ends meet.

Deep job cuts are anticipated now that Afanasyev and his crew have returned to Earth.

Whether the Russians can bury Mir without endangering the world at large remains an open question.

"They should be able to do it. There's a lot of ocean out there, and the capability to bring it down into the sea certainly is there. It's just a matter of whether they do it right, or screw it up," said Grey.

"We'll just have to wait and see" added Newkirk. "That's going to be an interesting story - much more interesting than just the last crew leaving Mir."

RUIMTEVAARTNIEUWS door Chris v.d. Berg (Dutch)
MIRNEWS by Chris v.d. Berg (English)
Space Online: Farewell to Mir

BBC News Sci/Tech: Cosmonauts ready to leave Mir

26 Aug 1999


Crew to depart Russian space station Mir

Russia's space station Mir will be abandoned Friday, laying the groundwork for a suicide plunge through the atmosphere and into the Pacific Ocean next year.

But independent experts wonder if the departure of two Russian cosmonauts and a French researcher will be the final farewell for the last gem of the once-vaunted Soviet space program.

Another crew is training for a short mission to help prepare the 13 1/2-year-old station for its dive through Earth's atmosphere. Russian officials also are scrambling for cash to save the 130-ton station.

"It seems unlikely that there's going to be another crew," said Dennis Newkirk, author of the Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight. "But they do have this one crew which they think may go up yet, and until those hopes are dashed, they won't make any final decision."

In any case, cosmonauts Sergei Avdeyev and Viktor Afanasyev - along with French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere - will put the station on autopilot and pull away from the outpost about 5 p.m. EDT Friday.

They'll land back on Earth about three hours later. At that time, the station's central hub will have circled the planet more than 77,000 times, logged about 5,000 days in space, and sustained 1,600 breakdowns.

Among the problems were a near fatal fire and collision in 1997.

Continuously occupied for almost 10 years, Mir has hosted nearly 100 people since its core lab was launched in February 1986.

Seven NASA astronauts, a Japanese journalist, a British candymaker and several foreign astronauts have carried out research tours. The longest stint was cosmonaut Valery Polyakov's record 438-day stay in 1994 and 1995.

A final crew might visit Mir in February or March to make preparations for the station's funeral at sea.

Ultimately, a Russian space freighter will push the station back into the atmosphere. Most of the outpost would burn up in the atmosphere with the remainder falling into the Pacific.

Earlier news on Mir

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