The thrills and spills of Mir, the first and presently one-and-only permanent orbiting space station, may be the most oft-recurring news story out of Moscow. That is, aside from the many crises of Russia itself, whose destiny the station has mirrored over the past 14 years with perverse fidelity.
Like Russia, which elected a youthful Vladimir Putin less than two weeks ago amid much talk of national renewal and brave horizons, the creaking Mir station has just been granted an unexpected new lease on life.
Russian cosmonauts Sergei Zalyotin and Alexander Kalyeri, blasted off from the old Soviet spaceport at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on April 4. The capsule is to dock April 6, when the crew will "knock on the door, switch on the lights, and see how everything's going up there," according to Jeffrey Manber, president of MirCorp. The Amsterdam-based consortium is the latest in a string of private investors who have pledged to save the station from imminent demise by putting up $20 million for the mission. The company's vision is to transform the station into an orbiting hotel, tourist spa, and movie set. But plans to send along a Russian actor for a film shoot during the current mission had to be scrapped in a financial dispute.
After Mir was left dormant eight months ago, it was scheduled to tip out of orbit and go down in flames above the Pacific Ocean. "Through privatizing the renovation and maintenance of the Mir, it can stand for years to come as an emblem of how much humanity can achieve," trumpets MirCorp's Web site. The phrase almost might have been torn from Mr. Putin's own manifesto for Russia's future.
A 'symbol of perseverance'
"The Mir station is like a symbol of Russian perseverance and survival," says Yevgeny Tin, a researcher with the science commission of the Duma, or lower house of parliament. "Yes, the Mir is leaking air, Russia is leaking capital, but both stay afloat somehow.... The main thing is, we keep dreaming big dreams."
Foreigners may be baffled, but every Russian understands the Mir instinctively. Russian roads throng with little box-like Soviet-era Zhiguli and Moskvitch cars that keep puttering along, seemingly held together by bits of wire, electric tape, and hope. When they stall at the roadside, which is often, someone, somehow always gets them going again.
To outsiders, the whole country looks way past its expiration date, but Russians don't seem to notice.
At its launch in 1986, Mir was the crown jewel of the Soviet space program, then locked in a cold-war-era game of one-upmanship with the US space agency NASA. Soviet scientists at the time predicted that Mir's useful life would end in 1991. In fact, the USSR fell apart that year, but Mir went staggering on. It has orbited the Earth 77,000 times with crews drawn from 12 nations, including Russia, the United States, Canada, Syria, Afghanistan, and Japan.
"The country that created Mir is gone, and so is the station's original purpose," says Konstantin Kreidenko, spokesman for Rosaviacosmos, a state agency that oversees the space industry. "[Mir] is still basically sound. We hope it can attract enough foreign investment to keep it from crashing." Just what the optimists have been saying all along about post-communist Russia.
Not ready to pull the plug
Russia joined a US-led international space station project in the early 1990s. But it kept crews rotating through Mir, to the consternation of NASA, which sees Mir as draining funds from the much-delayed project.
While Russia seen hyperinflation, political turmoil, and two brutal wars in Chechnya, Mir also stumbled to the verge of extinction. Since its launch, the station has experienced 1,600 major technical mishaps. In 1997, crews faced an on-board fire, a collision with a supply ship, and a series of harrowing computer crashes that left the station without power or oxygen. The decision was made to pull the plug around the same time foreign investors were fleeing Russia's financial collapse in 1998.
But it's still there! "Better than ever," says Sergei Zhiltsov, spokesman for MPO-Proton, the bureau that designed Mir. Never mind the rumors of metal fatigue, chemical corrosion, and unexplained drops in pressure, he insists. "Mir has been renewed and upgraded over the years. Now it's ready to enter its most active and fruitful period of service.
"Mir is a real testimony to the Russian way of doing things."
And who can argue with that?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society