Mir gazers ready to duck and cover

A cosmonaut's guitar. Michael Foale's running shoes. A photo of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. About 400 books, most with the covers torn off to save weight.

That's just a partial list of memorabilia on Mir that isn't likely to make it through the atmosphere when the Russian space station tumbles to Earth, blazing a fiery trail into the Pacific Ocean (hopefully) east of Australia on Friday.

But it's the bigger Mir detritus - some 1,500 pieces weighing 27 tons - that has folks from Japan to Australia to Chile staying up nights. Some are amateur satellite spotters. Others are public safety officers.

While the risks are minuscule, government officials in Japan and Fiji are telling people to stay indoors during the descent.

In Sydney, Paul Shallow has been spending so much time tracking Mir over the Internet that his marriage is beginning to suffer. "My wife is ready to kill me," he says. "We had to go to the beach today just to bring my mind back to earth."

But Mr. Shallow doesn't have much time to relax. Resting on the retired accountant's shoulders are the hopes and dreams of the 80-member Northern Sydney Astronomical Society. He's in charge of telling them where in the sky to look for what could be one of the most amazing light shows ever seen on earth.

From Sydney to Saint Petersburg, amateur astronomers all over the world are getting ready for the return of the cosmos' most accident-prone space station. But here they're not just worried about seeing Mir, they're worried about dodging it.

If all goes to plan, Mir will land in a desolate area of the South Pacific between New Zealand and Chile just before dinner time in Sydney on March 23 and never even pass over Australia on its final descent. But over its 15-year history, things have rarely gone according to plan with Mir, and for Australians living on the largest landmass in the region - and ergo the biggest target - that has meant considering an unlikely scenario.

Australian authorities know the risk is tiny, but Russia's last-minute decision to take out a $200 million insurance policy hasn't helped matters. Officials here have an elaborate emergency plan, and on Friday a crack team of disaster experts will be hunkered down at the ready in a control bunker in Canberra.

Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand all have their own disaster plans. Chile is warning fishing boats and aircraft to stay clear of the target area. The French government asked Russia to alter Mir's final route to avoid some uninhabited French islands in the South Pacific.

But for Australia there's the added cautionary note of history - Australians have been through this before.

To Dorothy Andre everything about the current preparations has an eerie ring of familiarity. One night in 1979, she and her husband were awakened by a series of sonic booms as the US satellite Skylab came crashing down, raining hundreds of pieces of debris on the little Western Australian port of Esperance and the surrounding cattle stations.

"It was just: 'Crash! ... Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!" she recalls. "We thought it was the end of the world coming."

Still on display in the local museum she now curates are a half-dozen pieces of Skylab, including "the hatch door and the fridge that they had aboard," Ms. Andre notes proudly.

The Skylab incident left a lingering suspicion in Andre of supposedly finely honed plans for bringing space junk back to Earth. After all, Skylab was supposed to land harmlessly somewhere in the Atlantic, not pepper the poor people of Esperance with debris. (Local authorities sent NASA a ticket for littering. "But," says Andre, "they didn't even pay the fine on that. We weren't very impressed.")

Skylab also isn't the only feature in Australia's history involving heavy objects from outer space.

In Western Australia you'll find the largest meteor crater in the Southern Hemisphere - and reports of man-made space junk coming down to Earth aren't that unusual either. The Australian UFO Research Center's toll free hotline gets 700 to 800 calls each year from people wanting to report strange lights in the night sky. The hope is that most people will know enough not to call the hotline when Mir comes down. But, says Doug Moffett at the center, "obviously there are going to be a few people mistaking it for something else and calling us.... It probably will be one of the most spectacular displays of space junk ever seen."

Geography holds part of the explanation for Australians' fascination with what's above them.

A continent the size of the United States with a population of just 20 million concentrated around seven or eight major cities, Australia doesn't suffer from the same kind of light pollution that obscures most of the night sky over the US.

"In the daytime [Australia's sky] is this incredible blue dome with this burning sun. At night you get this magnificent view of the stars and this imposing moon. And you don't have to travel far out of the city to see it," says Simon Mansfield, publisher of Sydney-based spacedaily.com, an Internet newsletter.

Australians, Mr. Mansfield says, have also always had a special kind of attraction to space because of their own location.

"We're an incredibly isolated country. We're at the bottom of the world surrounded by oceans ..... For (Australians) who were born in the space age I think there's a subconscious association between space and that geographic position."

So far, experts say, Mir's masters appear to be overseeing what could be the most controlled reentry of an unmanned space craft ever, making Australia an unlikely endpoint.

And having been the victim of one major space junk incident, Dorothy Andre isn't too worried about Mir. "We've thought about it," she says. "But we figure it can't go down in the same place twice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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