Bellingham, Washington; 27 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The abandonment last month of Mir, the 13-year-old Soviet-era space station, opens a new era in mankind's exploration of space.
Without its guidance systems, Mir is expected to fall out of orbit and largely disintegrate in the Earth's upper atmosphere sometime next year.
In its extended lifetime, Mir came to bridge the gap between the competitive U.S. and Soviet space programs of the Cold War and the 15-nation cooperative venture that is building Mir's successor, the International Space Station.
The first two components of that new station are now orbiting Earth every 92 minutes.
Unity, built in the United States, will provide the connections needed to integrate the future elements into a single station . Connected to Unity is the Russian-built, U.S.-financed Zarya control module, which guides the emerging station in its orbit 400 kilometers above Earth.
NASA, the U.S. space agency, tells RFE/RL that work continues satisfactorily in both the United States and at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the crucial launch, scheduled for November 12, of one of Russia's major contributions to the station -- the Zvezda module. Russia built and paid for Zvezda, which in March is scheduled to become home to the first crew to inhabit the International Space Station -- an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts.
Zvezda will provide living quarters for station residents until the larger, U.S.-built Habitation Module is ready for occupancy in about five years. At that time, Zvezda will continue service as a docking area and facility for keeping the completed station on its assigned orbit.
Some members of the U.S. Congress have criticized NASA's early-on involvement of Russia as its primary partner in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. That sentiment is only fed by the continuing political upheaval in Russia, current revelations about an alleged massive money-laundering scheme and charges that Russia thwarts U.S. foreign policy by helping Iran develop weapons of mass destruction.
Lack of Russian funds for the Zvezda module was largely responsible for setting back its original planned launch in April 1998 to this coming November. But there have been delays on the U.S. side as well, according to the venture's prime contractor for NASA, The Boeing Company, which is headquartered in the Pacific Northwestern city of Seattle, Washington.
In all, delays have extended completion of the International Space Station to nearly 2005, almost three years later than the originally planned.
NASA spokeswoman Kirsten Williams says she does not anticipate any delay about the scheduled launch of the service module or next spring's crew flight to the station.
U.S. planning for a permanent and international space station, originally called "Space Station Freedom," began in 1987. That was only months after the Soviet-launched Mir space station became operational. But the end of the Cold War radically changed the picture.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia -- the heir to Soviet space technology -- merged some of their space programs. The design and plan for a radically different International Space Station emerged in 1993. At that time, Russia became the primary partner, bringing with it, as it did, valuable Soviet space experience and Soviet space assets, including Mir.
The new design reduced U.S. hardware costs by adding Russian-produced elements. And the planned orbit for the new station was changed to provide access for Russian launch vehicles. This lessened the venture's reliance on the U.S. Space Shuttle as a delivery system for building the station.
Assuming a successful launch of Zvezda in November, a Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in March, carrying the first crew to inhabit the I-S-S. The three men have been training for their five-month stay in space for more than two years.
The expedition's commander will be U.S. Astronaut Bill Shepard. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko will command the Soyuz space capsule, and cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev will be flight engineer.
Commanders of the next three future expeditions will alternate between Americans and Russians.
Thus will begin mankind's second generation of living in space.