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Tourists head for "Mir' re-entry zone

After reluctantly deciding to dump the aging Mir space station, Russian controllers chose a spot for re-entry along a swath of the South Pacific, far, far from the nearest inhabited land.

But it's not off-limits to determined tourists.

Herring Media Group, a Sausalito, Calif., public relations firm, has chartered a plane for space enthusiasts and television crews to fly to the site, a trip Russia's space agency director compares to a suicide jump off a bridge.

Organizers claim the flight is safe, and want to film the spectacle of burning space station debris streaking toward Earth. The 143-ton cluster will be the largest artificial object ever to enter the atmosphere.

Once the pride of the Soviet Union, Mir is scheduled to come down Thursday in a target zone about halfway between Australia and Chile, according to Russia's Mission Control.

More than 50 people have paid about $6,500 each, slightly more for a window seat, to see the historic event, according to company director Marc Herring.

The price includes a few nights on Fiji before and after the show, a steak barbecue to honor Herring's Texas roots, drinks on the plane and a promised "bash" once the station is down. Four Russian astronauts will be on board to see the fiery death of their former home.

"We'll see a bright, meteorlike object on the horizon with a smoke trail coming toward us, then a series of explosions of the pressurized vessels and a glow as the station fragments into multiple parts and rains down," Herring said.

Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev maintains any trip to the target zone would be foolhardy, stressing that the area was chosen to minimize risk to people and property on Earth.

Still, the space agency can't stop people.

"People used to kill themselves by jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge," Koptev said. "Apparently these people are driven by a spirit of adventure, but we would recommend that they not go there."

But Herring said the plane, either a jet or a turboprop, should never be closer than about 200 miles from the falling space junk.

A navigator will call Russian Mission Control on a satellite phone minutes before the station breaks up, when the final re-entry coordinates are known, and the pilot can skedaddle out of range if necessary, he said.

"It's the sort of thing you shouldn't try at home," Herring quipped.