Call it the little space station that could. Like R2-D2 of the "Star Wars" saga, Russia's Mir space station keeps getting rescued, just as it appears destined for certain oblivion.
The 14-year-old facility, already in orbit more than a decade longer than its original design, had been scheduled to fall to Earth over the Pacific Ocean later this year due to lack of funding.
Then last week, Russian movie director Yuri Kara announced plans to film parts of his next project, "The Last Journey," aboard Mir.
A day later, RKK Energiya, the company that runs the aging spacecraft, announced it had formed a new corporation, MirCorp, with rights for commercial use of the platform including private scientific research or even tourism.
"I believe that in the 21st century, directors will routinely shoot movies on the moon or on Mars," says Mr. Kara. "The first cosmonaut was named Yuri. I'm Yuri too, and I'll be the first director."
Yuri Gagarin's 1961 trip beyond the stratosphere was only one of Russia's firsts, which also include the first dog in space, Laika, in 1957, and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963.
Russian actor Vladimir Steklov currently is undergoing intense training for his starring role as an astronaut who refuses to leave the world's longest-serving spacecraft and beams messages of global peace back to the planet below.
He is due to go into orbit March 31 with a team of cosmonauts-turned-cameramen, who will double as "extras" for the film. Because Mir has been flying unmanned and partly shut down since last August in preparation for its earlier planned demise, they will have to spend the first few days in full space suits to protect against freezing temperatures and lack of oxygen. All will remain aboard Mir for the full length of the mission, as long as 45 days.
Kara had wanted to join the actors on the station, but there was no room. Instead he will direct the filming from Russian mission control at the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. He says in principle he will be able to direct shot by shot. Why go to such expense and extremes, filming 200 miles above the Earth, in a day when computers can virtually create any character or scene a director can imagine?
"There are a lot of movies created on Earth and on the computer. If you watch [Steven] Spielberg's dinosaurs, you realize it's like watching cartoons. The same goes for space movies. So I wanted the most authentic images that one could have of space," says Kara.
The director is still searching for an actress to play the female lead, who will not actually head into orbit. Kara says British actress Emma Thompson expressed interest, but was forced to turn down the role for earthly reasons. "She really wanted the part, but then she had a baby and couldn't take it."
For Russia's Energiya, the appeal of the project is financial rather than creative. The undisclosed sum the company will be paid to host Mr. Steklov will help extend Mir's life span. "We needed this financial boost," says Energiya President Yuri Semyenov, at the rocketmaker's headquarters in Korolyov, outside Moscow. "Everyone said it was high time to bury Mir. But look, we've been resurrected again."
The MirCorp bailout is the latest last-minute reprieve for the elderly station, which has defied all plans for its retirement despite vanishing budgets and a series of highly publicized accidents in 1997. Mr. Semyenov says $80 million to $100 million is needed annually to keep Mir in orbit, and it is guaranteed to remain in flight until August. Extra funding of about $20 million has been donated by a US company, Golden Apple.
Energiya will be the majority shareholder in the venture with Amsterdam-based MirCorp, formed in December with undisclosed partners with the intention of keeping Mir alive. With the effort still in the early stages, it's not clear yet whether possible tourists might enjoy typical cosmonaut fare of dehydrated meals - such as borscht and meat-and-potato casseroles - reconstituted with hot water.
While the station's longevity pleases Russian patriots, it has been an irritant for US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials. They believe that as long as Russia channels money into Mir, it will not fulfill its commitments to a $60 billion, 16-nation International Space Station, already long delayed.
Semyenov insists that the ISS, rather than Mir, is Russia's priority. The problem is severe underfunding by the government, he says. He is indignant at the suggestion that Mir should be retired. "Mir already exists.... It is an important part of the history of space travel. So it's unreasonable to abandon it to the ocean until we see if the ISS can work."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society