On a sad day for the Russian space program, the final full-time crew of the Mir space station left the orbiter for the last time Friday and headed back to Earth.
"The mood here is businesslike, but gloomy," said Valery Lyndin, the spokesman for the Mission Control center in the town of Korolyov near Moscow.
| The following is a chronology of key events in Russia's space history:|
While the altitude of Mir will slowly decrease, the Russians hope to send a crew up for a final mission in late February or March to safely discard it, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood.
Russian cosmonauts Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, along with French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere, left the station in a Soyuz escape capsule shortly after 5 p.m. EDT Friday. About three hours later the crew landed safely in deserted steppe in the former Soviet republic Kazakhstan.
Mission Control will switch off most of the Mir's systems, including the central computer that keeps the station's solar panels facing the sun. However, there will be enough energy left to restart the computer and the station's climate -control system will keep the station from freezing.
The decision to abandon the 13-year-old Mir, by far the world's longest-serving space station, came after the cash-strapped government decided to stop financing its operation and all attempts to attract private investors failed.
In a last-ditch effort to raise cash, the state-run RKK Energia, the company that owns Mir, decided to postpone discarding the ship for good until early next year.
Few believe that money will be found, meaning the government will have to pay for a final mission.
If that happens, a crew of two will spend about a month aboard the station, gradually lowering its orbit. After those cosmonauts leave, ground controllers will send the 140-ton station to burn up in the atmosphere, with any surviving fragments falling into the Pacific Ocean.
Mission Control has dismissed fears that the deserted Mir may spin out of control and crash on land. "The Mir's command system is reliably backed up to guarantee it from failure," Lyndin said.
At the same time, another official warned that no funds have been earmarked yet to build the two booster rockets necessary to take the final crew to the space station and deliver a cargo ship that would push Mir into the atmosphere.
"There is still no money for that, and Energia is seriously concerned because it bears responsibility for the safe discarding of the station," said Yuri Grigoryev, Energia's deputy chief, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Mir has had a patchy safety record that includes a fire, a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship and numerous computer breakdowns, but it has been running relatively smoothly in recent months.
NASA has long urged Russia to bring Mir down and concentrate its scarce resources on a new international space station that is behind schedule because of Moscow's failure to build key components. But Russian space officials and cosmonauts have been reluctant to part with the space station, the last symbol of the nation's once-glorious space program.
They fear that without a space project of its own, Russia will be left playing second fiddle to the United States.
To learn more about Mir's fate, click here.