To steer the falling MIR space station safely back to earth, Russia and the US are undertaking a crash course in cooperation.

To Russia, it's a symbol of national accomplishment. To Astronaut Shannon Lucid, it's an orbital home "resembling a cosmic tumbleweed" where Russian and American crews discovered their common humanity. To NASA, it's a relic that drains funds from Russia's contribution to the International Space Station Alpha. But however it's perceived, Russia's long-playing space station Mir, whose name means "Peace," is about to exit the space flight scene.

Russian controllers are preparing to bring it down as soon as March 12. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, it should splash into "the southern part of the Pacific Ocean, far away from sea and air routes." That means an area some 120 miles wide by 3,600 miles long east of New Zealand's southern end.

The 143-ton Mir will be the most ungainly space structure that any nation

has deorbited. The original core and one additional module form a long cylinder to which unmanned Progress cargo craft and manned Soyuz space ships dock. At one end, four additional laboratory modules are mounted at right angles to the core and to each other. The structure, measuring 86 by 96 by 99 feet, looks like an aircraft engine with a four-blade propeller. Solar-cell arrays stick out from the modules in various directions to give it that "tumbleweed" look.

Wake up and smell the respect

This is the cramped, dusty, noisy, crammed-with-stuff environment in which 42 Russian cosmonauts and their 63 foreign guests gave humanity its first lessons in long-term space flight. It could also have provided the first "reality TV," if there had been the necessary communications links. Asked if he had any privacy during the final Mir mission in 1999, French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere replied with a laconic "No."

That close environment, which Mr. Haignere said sometimes smelled "like burnt coffee," made strong demands on the crews' social skills. It also fostered mutual respect and a degree of mutual understanding. NASA Astronaut David Wolf told the industry journal Space News that early-cosmonaut "don't touch any-thing" attitudes toward Americans gave way to full acceptance as fellow crew members.

Shannon Lucid has a vignette that makes the point of person-to-person understanding. Writing in the Scientific American, she recalled quiet moments during her six-month tour in 1996 when crew members talked about themselves. "After a while, we realized we had all grown up with the same fear: an atomic war between our two countries," she wrote.

Getting ready to take the plunge

Now that demanding orbital home presents its controllers with a final challenge - how to bring it down safely in a controlled manner. An unmanned Progress cargo craft now docked with Mir carries extra fuel. Progress will fire its thrusters four times. Should the remote control of these operations fail, a cosmonaut crew is standing by to fly to Mir and take over.

No one knows exactly how the complex structure will break up and disintegrate as it reenters Earth's atmosphere. Parts of Mir should start burning when they reach 70 miles altitude. Solar arrays and lighter aluminum parts should burn up completely. However, some 1,500 stronger aluminum and titanium parts - up to 27.5 tons - may reach the surface, according to an Associated Press report. Some of the pieces could weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

The Russians seem determined to do all they can to ensure that none of that debris becomes an embarrassment. Critics, including nationalistic politicians and many cosmonauts, have pressured the government to reverse the cabinet's November decision to deorbit Mir.

But, after a 20-hour loss of radio contact in December, Yuri Koptev, general director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, said he was concerned that the deteriorating space station might tumble into the atmosphere on its own. He said the government could not allow the risk of an uncontrolled deorbit "because of its obligations to the international community," as quoted by the Associated Press.

Mir has had an unexpectedly long life. Its planners anticipated three to five years service when they launched the initial core module Feb. 20, 1986. New modules, equipment upgrades, and, until the final regular mission ended Aug. 28, 1999, continuous maintenance by rotating crews kept Mir in service.

Economics brought fundamental change in the Mir program during the past decade. The cash-strapped government that inherited the Soviet-era space program could no longer afford it. Foreign help with funding became essential.

Enter the Shuttle-Mir program, also known as Phase 1 of the International Space Station. With the stated purpose of learning the ropes of space-station life and of learning to work with its Russian partners, NASA contracted for 10 shuttle missions to Mir.

The first in February 1995 was just a rendezvous. The other nine delivered supplies, retrieved cargo, and exchanged crews on Mir. Astronauts and cosmonauts learned one another's languages and trained at one another's centers, as did flight controllers.

Seven American astronauts became crew members. Many others visited the station. In all, shuttles transferred nearly 30 tons of material to and from Mir. Astronauts logged a total of 802 consecutive station duty days.

Costs of a space station are tricky to estimate. Some services are supplied by agencies with separate budgets or are assigned to non-station accounts. It has taken the equivalent of $4.2 billion to build and maintain Mir, according to the Russian Space Agency.

Agency director Yuri Koptev has said partners invested a total of $1 billion. NASA has paid the Russian Space Agency nearly $300 million for use of Mir, including $26 million for wear and tear.

That leaves out the cost of 10 shuttle flights at more than $400 million each. Space News estimates that, all told, the United States invested more than $4 billion in the Shuttle-Mir program, some of it spent at home.

Reflecting on the program's payoff, Paul Dye lead flight director for the final mission, told a press conference: "We've learned a tremendous amount that's going to help us on [international station Alpha], not only from a technology standpoint - how to dock with space stations, how to operate them, how to schedule things - but how to work with our Russian colleagues."

High-flying businessmen

Meanwhile, Dutch-based MirCorp, which tried to commercialize Mir, still wants to get into the space-station act. It invested $20 million in a 73-day mission to tune up Mir last year in hopes of using it for commercial purposes. It also contracted to fly millionaire Dennis Tito to Mir as a tourist. In the end, MirCorp failed to raise the funds to keep Mir in orbit.

Now MirCorp president Jeffrey Manber says the company is looking forward to commercial opportunities with station Alpha. It wants to honor its contract with Mr. Tito by flying him to the Russian module - a plan NASA adamantly opposes.

With 63 foreign and 42 Russian veterans, Mir can claim to have been the first international space station. Cosmonauts saddened by its demise grumble that they will learn nothing from Alpha since they have done it all before. Yet they reportedly are lining up for berths on Alpha missions. Their international colleagues expect that when these cosmonauts wake up in the Russian module and smell the burned coffee, they will join with enthusiasm the new international enterprise.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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