Time runs out for station Mir

February 18, 2000

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Russia's space station is gobbling international funds and slowing future projects. Backing must be found by August, writes David Wade

After almost 14 years of continuous operation it appeared the end was nigh for the Mir space station. Abandoned in August 1999 to drift towards its fiery destruction, the recent announcement of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency (Rasa) plan to keep the station alive until at least this August came as a surprise.

When Mir was launched in 1986 - at the time of the Challenger space shuttle explosion and a spate of United States and European rocket failures - it was a demonstration of the technological prowess of the Soviet communist system. When the last crew left in August 1999 they battened down the hatches of a very different station; a station that had been robbed of every last ounce of resource, stretched beyond its limits and kept alive on the life-support machine of western cash. Designed to last five years, Mir should have come down along with the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, but it limped on, Rasa deftly mastering the intricacies of capitalism to sell its services.

Following the last US visit to Mir in 1998, and the $400 million the cooperation provided, the tide of investment upon which Mir had relied began to recede.

Ever since US space agency Nasa had its use out of Mir, conducting research and learning for itself how to operate an orbital laboratory, it has placed increasing pressure on Rasa to destroy the station. As a key partner in the new International Space Station, Russia has constantly missed deadlines and caused delays to other partners. It is estimated that Rasa's commitment to supply its two elements of the ISS amounts to $1.2 billion. The first of these components, the service module, will be launched in July, two years behind schedule. In the meantime, Nasa and the ever-hawkish Congress have constantly voiced their concern over the small annual Russian space budget of $130 million, too small to fund a single project, never mind both Mir and the ISS.

As a piece of real estate, many uses have been suggested for Mir. Although Mir's Russian cosmonauts had been little more than janitors over the past few years, the visiting American, French, German and Austrian astronauts all performed valuable research. Activities included producing semiconductor wafers for supercomputers and growing crystals for medical science untainted by the polluting effects of gravity; studying the influence of weightlessness on plants and animals and looking at the development of drugs to combat problems such as osteoporosis, an affliction similar to the bone demineralisation suffered by space-farers. Other suggested uses for Mir have been to make it the world's first orbital hotel, maintaining it as a monument to the achievements of humanity or to use it as a film set.

Unable to sell Mir's facilities, it appeared that no market existed for a commercial orbital research laboratory. It is more likely that the bad press and continual mishaps put paid to any such interests.

But this is not a view held by everyone. Since mid-1999 US venture capital firm Gold & Appel, led by the financier Walt Anderson, has been working with Moscow-based Energya, Mir's operators, to try to save the station. Via the newly established MirCorp, the partnership is offering Mir for commercial exploitation. Some $7 million has been paid to Energya to show Gold & Appel's commitment, with a further $13 million to come later in the year. The funds are simply a lifeline to keep Mir functioning until real support can be found.

In March a new crew will be launched to Mir, their immediate priority is to raise the station's orbit above the grasp of the Earth's atmosphere. An uncrewed Progress supply craft will have visited Mir first, bringing new supplies and re-pressurising the leaking station. A second Progress craft, to be launched in April, will deliver further supplies needed to keep Mir running until August.

Mir's life extension will be a frantic time. In orbit, the cosmonauts will attempt to show that the station is still healthy and can be readily resurrected. On Earth, new investors will be sought, with pharmaceutical companies in particular being an appealing target.

Components designed and built for the ISS programme will be borrowed for use aboard Mir to keep it alive until August. A further 550 million roubles ($20 million) will have to be found to restock the Russian's ISS inventory. If Mir survives beyond August, which will require another crew launch, the impact on the ISS programme will be even greater. Launch vehicles being built for the delivery of key ISS components will be used for Mir and the ISS will be delayed further. Concerns such as these will be voiced by Nasa at the next ISS progress meeting to be held in Moscow this month.

By August the future of Mir will be finalised. If interested commercial parties are found, willing to pay the $100 million annual operating costs of Mir, the station will gain a new lease of life.

Optimistic Rasa spokespeople claim that Mir still has a couple of years of life left, if only the funds would allow. Without an investor, Mir will once again start its descent towards destruction. At the end of the year Mir would dive into the Earth's atmosphere 100km above New Zealand. The burning station would streak across the sky, any pieces surviving the fiery re-entry splashing down harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean. Plummeting to Earth, Mir will finish life as a man-made meteor, bringing to a close the last element of the once-great Soviet space programme and the cold war upon which it was built.

David Wade is a senior lecturer at Kingston

University's school of mechanical, aeronautical and production engineering.

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