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Russians Resigned to Downing Mir

Space: Bringing huge station to a safe splashdown poses problems, officials admit. There's no guarantee it won't hit land, they say.

November 17, 2000|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — After postponing the funeral several times, Russia's space community finally reconciled itself Thursday to burying its favorite child. Now it has to figure out how to bring the problem-plagued Mir space station safely down to Earth.

After Russia's Cabinet decided Thursday to lay the 14-year-old Mir to rest in February, Russian space officials admitted that they are unsure whether they can make the 130-ton space station splash down into the ocean in the target zone, somewhere near Australia.

Residents of the southern continent won't be comforted by the words of Nikolai Ivanov, Mir's chief navigator, who conceded that there is no guarantee it won't hit land.

"No one has ever solved such a task before," he said. "So we don't know how a giant thing like this will behave at a height of 200 kilometers [124 miles]. Everything is being calculated on paper."

He said that Russia has developed a general plan but that the details are still to be worked out.

"So far, we proceed from the view that the station will obey our commands and all systems will function normally, but things may take a different turn," he warned.

Officials say they expect that the greater part of the station will burn up on reentry into the atmosphere. But according to Yuri N. Koptev, director of the Russian Space Agency, the largest pieces could still weigh as much as 1,500 pounds and crash into Earth with a force great enough to smash through reinforced concrete 6 feet thick.

In 1979, the U.S. satellite Skylab, half the weight of Mir, was supposed to come down in the South Atlantic, but pieces crashed onto remote parts of Australia. No one was injured.

The Mir station, originally designed to orbit Earth for five years, remained aloft for 14 and was one of Russia's great space achievements.

After the Cabinet's action Thursday, an emotional Koptev said the decision was based on safety.

"We simply don't have the right to continue to play this game--I would call it a sort of Russian roulette--on credit," he said.

For some in the space community, accepting the hard truth about Mir's end was galling.

Alexander Alexandrov, chief of the Testing and Training Department of the Energiya space company and a former cosmonaut who worked aboard Mir, spoke of his disappointment.

"Every time I saw reports from Mir, I would see an antenna that I tuned or a solar battery that I installed, or some other gadget I fixed with my own hands," he said.

"It is like after driving a car for 25 years and you know and love every little detail, and then somebody tells you to push it into the river. It is like seeing a dear house, in which you spent the happiest years of your life, go up in flames."

In Mir's latter years, when the station was plagued by problems, cosmonauts had to spend much of their time tinkering on repair jobs.

The most dramatic failures were a fire, a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship that punctured the Spektr module, malfunctioning oxygen systems and leaks.

Despite all the problems, many space officials, such as Alexandrov, clung to the dream that the station could fly on.

"This is a tragic mistake," he complained. "I am sure the government could find some source of nonbudgetary funds to keep the Mir going. For some reason, which remains a mystery to me, they just didn't want to."

Russia's space agency had struggled desperately to keep Mir in orbit and attracted private financing from MirCorp, a Netherlands-based group that invested $40 million to try to upgrade the station in order to prepare it for commercial use, including space "tourism."

But the funding from MirCorp fell short of the $200 million required annually to keep the station aloft. So U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, who has paid $1 million as part of a $20-million fee to be the first space tourist, will never fly to Mir.

Yuri Usachev, a Russian cosmonaut who flew to Mir twice and is now training as a commander of the second crew to fly to the fledgling International Space Station, said Mir's end was inevitable.

"Mir was really a big part of my life, and I left a piece of myself there," he said. "We didn't quite believe in the new [ISS] program at first, but it has begun. The ISS came to replace Mir. And when Mir burns up, we will say thank you to it."

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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