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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A New World In Space

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government's decision to deorbit the 14-year-old "Mir" space station represents both the final act of the Soviet-American space race and the opening of a new era of international space exploration.

The Russian cabinet on Thursday decided that the "Mir" space station, once the pride of the Soviet space program, will be pushed out of orbit in February 2001 and allowed to burn up in the earth's atmosphere. Moscow took this decision only after exhausting all other options, including private financing, for keeping the space station both safe and operational.

And Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that he and his government considered that it had the obligation to "ensure safety" not only in the remaining months that "Mir" is in orbit but also during its fall to earth. According to the plan approved yesterday, "Mir" will crash into the Pacific ocean 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers east of Australia on February 28-29.

When the "Mir" was sent into orbit in 1986, then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev hailed it as evidence of the USSR's new competitiveness in the international space race which began when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 and which many people around the world believe had ended when the United States landed men on the moon in 1969.

Then in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the possibility that the new Russian government would have the resources to continue to compete in this international competition. But still the "Mir" lived on, outlasting the projections of its creators, attracting subventions from the United States, and hosting space travellers not only from the Russian Federation but from the U.S. and other countries as well.

Because the "Mir" remained so potent a symbol, many in Russia were reluctant to allow it to die. The Russian government sought assistance from foreign governments and then turned unsuccessfully to the private sector for the money that would be necessary to keep the "Mir" in orbit. With its decision this week, the Russian government has had to admit in public that it simply cannot sustain this survivor from the Soviet past any longer.

But the Russian decision also points to three other, perhaps far more important changes. First, it highlights a new realism in the Russian capital, a willingness to accept the limits of its new position in the world. Indeed, like the decision of President Vladimir Putin to downsize the Russian military, the decision to deorbit "Mir" reflects a willingness to declare as agreed-upon policy something the authorities are powerless to prevent.

Second, it highlights the fact that in the absence of the kind of international competition that animated the Cold War, few nations and their governments are willing any longer to make the kind of commitment to space exploration that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did a generation ago.

Both countries are spending far less on space in real terms than they did during the Cold War, a shift in resources that reflects new domestic priorities but also one that deprives the world both of the rich scientific harvest space activities yielded then and of the thrill many felt with the launch of ever more ambitious space projects.

And third, this decision points to a new world in space, one of international cooperation in the ever more expensive exploration of the cosmos. Even as the Russian authorities were taking what for them was clearly a most painful step, Russian, American, and European scientists were working together to build the new International Space Station as the successor to "Mir" and other national efforts.

Russian cosmonauts, American astronauts and space travellers from other nations as well will permanently man this new station which is likely to become not only an important laboratory for new discoveries but also a jumping off point for a genuinely international space effort.

Such cooperation in space will not end geopolitical competition on the ground, but the passing of the torch from "Mir" to the International Space Station does appear likely to create yet another forum where cooperation rather than contention is likely to rule.

And that shift in turn may provide on occasion at least the possibility for creating a new world on earth, one that might even last longer than the space station "Mir" has managed to do.