Sometime this week, space station Mir — the brightest star in the once mighty Soviet and Russian space program — will flicker out. After circling the planet for 15 years, at least three times its planned life span, the massive, aging station is scheduled to finally “deorbit” on Tuesday, “give or take a day.”
If all goes according to plan, what is left of it will splash down into an empty bit of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere east of New Zealand. If plans go awry, sizable remains could land anywhere along an arc of inhabited Earth from Australia to Japan, though experts say the chances of that happening are remote. For one thing, Russia has had more experience bringing things down from space than any other country, mainly because it has had more experience than just about anyone else putting things up there.
But there has only ever been one Mir. The station was launched in February 1986 and has long since earned its place among the most successful space ventures ever undertaken. Endurance records for living in space were set on Mir. Numerous experiments were carried out in its labs and modules, with useful implications in fields ranging from medicine and meteorology to astrophysics and industrial manufacturing.
After the Cold War ended, it was the setting for a remarkable series of joint missions with other countries, especially after a docking module was added in 1994 to allow U.S. space shuttles to link up with it. A former cosmonaut rightly said last week that the cooperation Mir helped foster between post-Soviet Russia and the West was one of its most important contributions. Its name, which means “Peace” in Russian, may have signified wishful thinking or Soviet-style irony in 1986, but it hasn’t sounded silly for years.
As Mir spirals slowly down toward its death plunge, all of this is being acknowledged in the West and in other countries, including Japan, that participated in Mir missions over the years. In the 15 years it has been “somewhere out there,” Mir has become a fixture in the world’s collective image of space. Sometimes, especially after the bad year of 1997, when it suffered a series of life-threatening accidents and malfunctions, it was seen as a bit of a joke — humanity’s orbiting booby trap. In recent months, this image has resurfaced as the space station experienced another round of breakdowns and mishaps. But on the whole, the world recognizes that Mir was and will always be remembered as an inspiring scientific achievement on a level with the first manned space flights and the moon landing. Its demise will leave a hole in the sky.
Nowhere more so, however, than over Russia, where the fate of Mir has taken on a symbolic significance that goes far beyond utilitarian questions of sustainability. Its most vocal supporters have been cosmonauts and communist hardliners nostalgic for the country’s glory days as a Cold War superpower; together, these groups have succeeded in winning the condemned station more reprieves than a Texan on death row. But it is understandable that even Russians without a professional or ideological ax to grind might be sorry to see the end of Mir. As beset by problems as Russia now is, it must be doubly galling to have to acknowledge that the country can no longer afford to keep its star space project going.
Luckily for Russia, though, the people actually running its space agency are not the types to waste time on pointless regrets. It was encouraging to read late last month the briskly sensible remarks of agency chief Yuri Koptev to a disgruntled group of cosmonauts and lawmakers: “Mir has done a lot,” he said, arguing against further extensions that might see the deteriorating station spinning out of control, “but it now must meet its end in a civilized way and not become a nightmare for the entire world.” Mr. Koptev also said that since the cash-poor space program could not afford to both keep Mir running and honor its commitments to the International Space Station, its choice was clear: “We can’t let down the 15 other nations in the (ISS) project.”
This is not only right, but unanswerable, and the reason is simple. Mr. Koptev’s remarks take into account, as the Mir supporters’ arguments do not, that space exploration is a changed world nowadays, and not only in Russia. Space agencies everywhere, even the cutting-edge NASA, are being forced to adapt their priorities to tighter budgets. No one can do everything they would like to do. Moreover, the approach has changed. Space has gone international, becoming an arena for teamwork rather than competing nationalisms. In that sense, the ISS is the future. Mir had a tremendously influential pioneering role to play in space history — and still does, as scientists worldwide take notes on its crash landing this week — but it is already the past.
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