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Russia: Space Veteran 'Mir' To Meet Fiery End Of Mission

After 15 years of service, Russia's "Mir" space station is due to return to Earth tomorrow (Friday). If all goes according to plan, two-thirds of the "Mir" will burn upon re-entry, with the rest of the station breaking up into an estimated 1,500 pieces that will crash into the Pacific Ocean.

Prague, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The American writer Mark Twain once famously remarked: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." So it was with Russia's "Mir" space station, which set a series of endurance records, despite many premature obituaries.

Designed to stay in space for only five years when it was launched in 1986, the "Mir" outlasted its designers' most optimistic expectations as well as the Soviet space establishment which created it.

Russia's cash-strapped space administration is now a pale shadow of the well-funded, privileged Soviet program that existed when the "Mir" left the planet. That the space station managed to continue to serve science until now -- despite its technical problems over the past few years -- has been a source of pride for Russia, and there is sadness both in Russia and elsewhere to see the mission finally end.

The operation to bring down the "Mir" has already begun, with mission control near Moscow gradually lowering the orbit of the 136-ton station. Early tomorrow morning, to slow the station, engineers will fire engines on board a "Progress" cargo ship docked to the "Mir." Then, at about 8 am Moscow time, the engines will fire one last time for 20 minutes, pushing the "Mir" out of orbit and sending it on its final descent to Earth over the south Pacific.

Speaking to RFE/RL this morning, mission control spokeswoman Larisa Lachinskaya said everything so far was on schedule:

"Everything is proceeding according to plan and there are no diversions. Events are taking their course as expected. Everything on board the station is fine. Everything is under control and mission control is ready and waiting."

Two-thirds of the space station will burn up as the "Mir" hurtles through the Earth's atmosphere at speeds upwards of one kilometer per second. About 1,500 fragments may reach Earth in a band several thousand kilometers long between New Zealand and South America. The largest chunks are expected to crash into the ocean some 900 kilometers downwind from the island nation of Fiji.

Russian space officials have voiced confidence they will be able to control the "Mir's" descent as planned. They say they have conducted thousands of computer simulations to make sure debris lands in the designated ocean area. But the "Mir" is by far the heaviest spacecraft ever to be dumped on Earth and scientists acknowledge there is a chance the more than 20 tons of expected debris might partially overshoot its target. If it were to hit land, a small piece of the "Mir" would be capable of smashing through two meters of concrete.

In Japan, authorities have advised citizens to remain indoors and follow news bulletins. Air traffic controllers in Australia and New Zealand say they will be in contact with mission control in Moscow to ensure air routes remain safe for commercial aviation.

But in Fiji, expected to be the closest country to the splashdown, the mood is more one of curious anticipation. A team of 40 space enthusiasts, including four Russian cosmonauts and "Mir" designer Leonid Garshkov, have traveled to the island nation for a front-row seat to the spectacle.

U.S. businessman George Miller is among those hoping to "see history in the making." He described the group's plans to RFE/RL by telephone from Fiji's capital Suva:

"We're going to be in two planes and fly out alongside the path that the Mir will be re-entering at about 6 o'clock tomorrow night, Fiji time. We expect to see a big fireball -- if we do it right -- from horizon to horizon. It will take about 3 minutes."

Miller says the aircraft plans to remain about 100 kilometers downwind from the expected central impact zone and he is not concerned with being hit by falling debris.

Miller says the world, especially the U.S. space program, owes a debt to the "Mir."

Indeed, 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 now building the International Space Station. It managed to do so in the face of extraordinary adversity -- weathering a fire, a near-fatal collision, computer malfunctions, and oxygen failures.

Miller says he and his fellow space enthusiasts anticipate tomorrow's fireworks with excitement, tempered by melancholy.

"There is a feeling of sadness among the cosmonauts and I'm very sad too. The Russians have done an amazing thing with [the] "Mir." In a lot of ways, they're still the leaders in space technology. Without [the] "Mir," the International Space Station would never have happened. Some key parts of the International Space Station are Russian and it would not be up there today without the Russians."

Should events not unfold as planned tomorrow, Russian authorities have taken out $200 million in insurance to cover any potential damage to life or property. But this is one policy no one is hoping will be paid out.