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Science & Technology

Mir comes home again



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Politics & Policy

There are some who made money from this spectacle

From Diana J. Choyce
Apr 02 - 08, 2001

On Friday 23 March the Russian space station Mir, which means "peace and "world", finally came home after its 15 year mission. At 12:07 a.m. EST, her engines threw a 20 minute burst that lined her trajectory up to land in a remote area of the south Pacific. "We saw five or six fragments with a huge smoke trail that lasted for 10 to 15 seconds. It was followed some time later by a couple of sonic booms,'' said Reuters photographer Mark Baker from Nadi in the South Pacific islands of Fiji. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.'' Australian officials say they think it landed about 1800 miles southwest of Britian's Pitcairn Islands. "It occurred in the exact area that the Russian space agency had predicted, between Australia and Chile,'' said Emergency Management Australia managing director David Templeman. "I'm relieved.'' South Pacific nations had been on standby in case chunks hit land instead of water. A fleet of 27 tuna boats fishing in the target zone was not hit by any debris, a spokeswoman for the fleet, Tana McHale, told Reuters from California. "They didn't even get a decent light show,'' she said.

Russian Mission Control, just outside of Moscow, seemed relieved that all went as planned. But was equally sad at the ending to a long but prideful achievement at keeping Mir in space far longer than was planned."Mir has completed its triumphant mission,'' said an announcer at Mission Control outside Moscow. "It was unprecedented in the history of space research.'' The giant 136-ton structure a collection of cylindrical modules sprouting a profusion of antennae and solar panels had been in orbit since 1986. Chunks of the craft burned up on re-entry but over 20 tonnes of metal splashed into the sea. "Mir proved Russia cannot just build things but can operate them too,'' Russian Space Agency chief Yuri Koptev told reporters. ''Russia is and will remain a space power.'' Senior space official Nikolai Anfimov told reporters Russia had not had the means to pinpoint where Mir's remnants landed. "We are hoping to get some observers' information and then we can analyze it,'' he said. Such information could come from Fiji and a U.S.-Russian group that flew two planes to the area.

This final Mir mission cost $4.2 billion, mostly because of last minute repairs needed to make the re-entry successful."Given the state of the station we are obliged to do this,'' he said. "One should not see this in purely emotional terms.'' But most Russians questioned by Reuters on the streets of Moscow said they felt the loss deeply. "I am really sorry. It is a whole epoch that has gone by,'' Nadezhda, 29, a company manager, said. "When they launched it I was at school and now my daughter is seven.'' Russia is now set to concentrate its efforts, and limited funds that would not stretch to keeping Mir aloft, on the $95 billion International Space Station (ISS), a joint venture with the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Sergei, a 42-year-old economist, said he did not believe in cooperation with Washington on the ISS. "We are giving up our positions one by one,'' he said. "As for the ISS, we do not have enough money and the Americans can kick us out of there at any time.''

Here are some interesting statistics of Mir, the mission that was only supposed to last three years, but somehow managed to last for 15 years. Mir had a core module and five other components weighing about 143 tons in all. With a cargo ship and an escape capsule attached, it weighed up to 154 tons. The modules were arranged in a T-shaped structure, 86 feet by 96 feet by 99 feet. It averaged an orbit speed of 17,885 miles per hour. The orbit was about 250 miles above Earth, which degraded to 144 miles on the day of its final flight home. It orbited 86,331 times. Since launch Feb. 20, 1986, Mir had 104 people aboard, including 42 Russian cosmonauts, seven NASA astronauts and others from Britain, France, Germany and other countries. More than 1,550 glitches plagued Mir, including a near fatal collision with a cargo ship in June 1997 and on-board fire earlier that year. The longest space mission was done by Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, 438 days in 1994-1995. Cosmonauts and astronauts conducted 78 spacewalks, lasting 352 hours in total. Such is the wonder of one of Russia's greatest achievements.

As with many things, there are some who made money from this spectacle. The Herring Media Group scheduled a tour for 50 people who were glad to pay a fee to watch the splashdown of Mir."The airplane will stay at least 200-300 miles away from the plummeting space station, according to Marc Herring, president of Herring Media Group, which is running the "Mir Reentry Observation Expedition" for space enthusiasts." "It would be foolhardy and extremely dangerous to approach the splashdown zone," says Herring. The plane was booked as only half-full, so those aboard can all peer out from the same side of the plane. "If we are lucky, we will see the five major pressurized modules explode, creating a series of bright meteor-like streaks and smoke trails with bright heads and tails of varying length," says the Web site the tour company. The 50 participants paid an average of $6,500 for the opportunity to witness the 135-ton station's final moments. "Our intention is to watch Mir travel across the horizon," he says. "It'll be just this phenomenal illumination of smoke and debris." The group also plans to post video of the re-entry on its Web site, Mirreentry.com, after the event.