Three cheers for the Russian cosmonauts. Anatoly Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov carried out a treacherous space walk with panache. We admire their skill in keeping the Mir space station going, but it seems time to consider honorable retirement for that remarkable craft.
Russia needs to focus its scarce space resources on fulfilling its obligations as a major partner in the program to build and operate the international space station Alpha. Russia is responsible for the initial modules when Alpha construction begins next June. Soyuz personnel carriers and Progress robot freighters, such as those which service Mir, must also serve Alpha. Russian space officials say they want to meet these obligations and keep Mir working. It is obvious that they can't do both.
Former Mir commander Vasily Tsibilyev reflected a concern widely held within Russia's aerospace industry when he said Mir's troubles stem from the impossibility of getting parts and other needed supplies in timely fashion. The roughly $100 million the United States pays annually to cover American missions on Mir help keep that industry alive. That is not its purpose, however. The United States considers those missions to be "phase one" of the Alpha project. They are an opportunity for American and Russian space experts with their different yet complementary traditions to learn to work together.
That learning experience ends next June. It's doubtful that other customers for Mir's facilities will appear to take up the slack. Any further American subsidy for Russia will focus on space station Alpha.
Meanwhile, American critics urge the United States to cut short its Mir program now. That would be a mistake, unless Mir's systems fail beyond repair. There still is mutual value in continuing the Mir partnership. Not only are we learning to work together but we are gaining vital biological information. Each of Russia's cosmonauts has had over a year of weightless experience. However, American experts want specific measurements the Russians haven't made, such as measurements just before return to Earth. This is the last opportunity for Americans to get such readings on Mir.
But Russian space officials and the Russian government need to face the fact that they cannot pursue both Mir and space station Alpha programs simultaneously. They should plan to retire Mir next June and take pride in its 11 years of accomplishment.