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A Mir-aculous Run

Alexander Sperin left his father's birthday party early to help monitor the blastoff of the Soviets' biggest space station, just before midnight, Moscow time, on Feb. 19, 1986. They called it Mir, or "peace," in a bit of Cold War irony.

Some dubbed it the beginning of a city in space. But Sperin, now a deputy flight controller at Russian Mission Control, remembers wondering: Can this thing really last three years in orbit, as its designers claim?

Key statistics about Russia's Mir space station:
  • ORBITS: About 16 a day, for total of more than 77,000.
  • DAYS ALOFT: Close to 5,000 for Mir's core component.
  • SIZE: 130 tons, six modules arranged in a T-shaped craft about size of railroad car, 98 feet wide and 85 feet long.
  • SPEED: 17,500 mph.
  • DISTANCE FROM EARTH: about 225 miles.
  • BREAKDOWNS: More than 1,600, including near-fatal collision with cargo ship in June 1997 and on-board fire earlier that year.
  • PASSENGERS: Nearly 100, including seven NASA astronauts, Japanese journalist, British candymaker, several other foreign visitors.
  • LONGEST STAY: Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, 438 days in 1994-95.
  • COST: Recent estimates $100 million-$250 million a year, depending on value of ruble.
  • It could, and then some. On Friday, after 13 1/2 years, more than 77,000 loops around the Earth and 1,600 breakdowns, Mir bid farewell to its final full-time crew.

    It will now embark on a sad trajectory, a gradual descent that will see much of it sizzle in the Earth's atmosphere and the rest - ideally - splash into the Pacific Ocean early next year.

    The sad thing isn't the end of the Mir itself. With age it's become a 130-ton bucket of bolts, a few salvageable scientific experiments lodged in a mass of corroding aluminum and outdated technology.

    The sense of loss, for Russians, is that this lemon of a space station is the last major brainchild of the Soviet space program, and its demise caps decades of often unrivaled cosmic navigation.

    Humbled by the collapse of their economy, and their military and global clout, Russians have clung to the Mir, blemishes and all. They're terrified of seeing their space accomplishments fade into history, too.

    After Mir, Russia will concentrate its scarce space funds on the international space station, which is borrowing much from Mir's experience but is unquestionably under U.S. command and is already far behind schedule because of financing delays on the Russian-made modules.

    But nothing can replace Mir.

    "I don't think we will devote ourselves as much to other projects, from the financial or the emotional point of view," Sperin said.

    James Oberg, a Houston-based independent consultant and author of books on the Russian space progra, agreed: "They poured the Russian soul into the Mir, that capacity for incredible suffering and endurance."

    The Mir lifted off from one of space travel's holiest grounds: the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakstan, then a Soviet republic.

    From Baikonur, the Soviets sent up the world's first satellite, the first man in space, and the first woman in space.

    Mir's cosmonauts carried a photo of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger into space.
    The Mir was born just three weeks after the U.S. shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts. The Mir's first cosmonauts carried pictures of the Challenger crew into orbit because they "wanted those seven brave astronauts to go to outer space."

    Later that year, Jane's Spaceflight Directory wrote that the Soviet Union had taken an "almost frightening" 10-year lead over the United States in the space race.

    The Mir was indeed untouchable for its first few years. Then the country that conceived it started to unravel.

    Shortages plagued the Soviet economy, and many citizens questioned generous space funding.

    The station showed signs of wear. Insulation was peeling off in chunks. Electrical systems were spotty and its computers were capricious.

    Twelve days before cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was to come home from a four-month stint on Mir, Soviet hard-liners staged an unsuccessful coup in August 1991 that precipitated the union's collapse. Krikalev was left in orbit an extra six months amid the turmoil.

    When he returned in March 1992, his country no longer existed. His hometown of Leningrad had become St. Petersburg. His once-enviable salary left him below the poverty line.

    "There were those who said I should have stayed on the Mir, things were better up there," said Krikalev, who was the first Russian to fly on a NASA shuttle and is to be on the first crew of the international station.

    Despite the Mir's ailments, no other space program has come close to matching its duration, and its crews' experience with long-term effects of weightlessness has been crucial in preparing the international station.

    Endurance has been the Mir's main - some say its only - major achievement.

    Though it has been a laboratory for hundreds of scientific experiments, its work has failed to bring the Russian people much benefit. U.S. missions have been much more efficient at translating space research to commercial use.

    Russian and foreign observers now say the Soviets hoped - and the Americans feared - the Mir would have significant military uses.

    But Oberg said that after some initial developments, such as advanced sensors and ground observation, those plans largelfizzled.

    Politics, combined with the humiliating failure of other recent Russian space projects, helped keep the Mir aloft. No Russian leader wanted to be associated with the end of the Mir.

    Artist's depiction showing the point of impact of the Mir collision.
    The momentum for bringing it down mounted in 1997, a year that saw a fire rage on the Mir in February and a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship in June that punctured the station the worst-ever space wreck.

    Since NASA completed a program that put seven astronauts aboard the Mir, the United States has been pressing Russia to abandon it in favor of the international station.

    The new station's first two pieces are in orbit and a crucial Russian-built segment that will house the crew is scheduled for liftoff in November.

    Some Mir specialists - who earn about 5,000 rubles a month, or $200 - will move to a backup control room for the international station. Others will be laid off.

    Yet the Mir isn't dead yet. And some Russian space officials are still hoping for a new injection of cash to send another crew.

    But Sperin, a 30-year veteran of the space program, warns that once the Mir starts lowering its orbit toward the Earth after the current crew leaves, it would be fruitless and possibly dangerous to try to reverse the process.

    "We need to say goodbye."

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