The three-man crew of the Mir space station returned safely to earth last week, leaving the orbiting station unmanned for the first time in two years. The move is part of an effort to save money. The official Tass news agency said that Mir will now operate on automatic pilot until August, when two more cosmonauts will blast off for the station.
By then, two new add-on modules virtually doubling the size of the space station with additional technical equipment will be ready to be launched.
The replacement crew, the fifth since Mir was launched in February 1986, was originally due to have blasted off on April 19, giving a week-long handover period. But it was announced this month there would be a delay.
The delay in sending up the new crew was blamed on a preparation holdup but Tass also appeared to confirm a link with growing public criticism of the enormous costs of the Soviet space program that emerged in last month's elections to the new Soviet parliament.