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With rattletrap "Mir' will fall a dream of Russian glory

Its scientific value was questionable, its hardware woes a global scandal. But it bespoke a superpower status _ now lost.

The Russian space station Mir is falling to Earth late this week, and who cares anyway, as long as the pieces don't land anywhere nearby.

Mir, after all, is "an empty, dented, fungus-infested hulk," as one newspaper called it, known more for mishaps, including a fire and a collision, than for anything it accomplished.

"Mir's scientific legacy? It doesn't have one," scoffed John Pike, a veteran space policy analyst.

And besides, the spanking-new international space station is being assembled in space. The station is a huge, costly, 16-nation project that will far surpass anything its predecessor did.

So down with the old and up with the new.

Just watch your head if you find yourself in the South Pacific late this week. Large pieces of metal will splash down sometime then, and Mir's time _ if it ever really had one _ will be past.

But if the rest of the world sees Mir as the equivalent of a worn-out old car, the Russians do not. The Russian bear is hanging its head over what the end of Mir signals to fellow nations.

"For many years, the Soviets' space program was part of their claim to being equal to the U.S.," Pike said. "Mir helped the Russians sustain some measure of self-respect after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The end of Mir is the end of their claim to being a superpower."

Mir is the largest artificial object ever to plummet from orbit. It is a collection of laboratories and living quarters, assembled over 15 years, measuring about 96 feet by 86 feet. It looks, as one reporter noted, like a dragonfly. Its nearest rival in terms of mass was the 76-ton U.S. Skylab, which fell out of control in 1979, scattering debris on Australia.

Japan and a number of South Pacific islands have fretted publicly about the possibility of being hit by debris, but most space experts say they should relax. Large objects, from meteorites to spent rocket stages, regularly roar through Earth's atmosphere unnoticed.

Cosmonaut Denis Titov, who flew aboard Mir twice, told Reuters news agency he would watch Mir's return with a heavy heart. "That will be a sad day," he said. "I don't really want to hold a wake . . . but I will probably spend it with friends. We will remember and talk."

"Mir's legacy is not scientific, it's political," said Pike, director of http://globalsecurity.org, a policy analysis Web site specializing in defense and space issues.

"Mir was an important vehicle for transforming our relationship with the Russians from enemy to partner."

In Pike's view, "There was no real scientific importance to Yuri Gagarin's or John Glenn's flights either. In fact, all manned space flight is more about politics than about science.

"Mir was a political bargain and a scientific boondoggle."

But at least, he said, the Russians finally accepted that Mir must be abandoned. Its supporters fought to the end.

In February, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament urged President Vladimir Putin to halt Mir's deorbit. The vote was initiated by the Communist Party, whose leader argued that U.S. plans to deploy a national missile defense system would make "equal cooperation" between the two nations on the new space station doubtful.

Pike said he was encouraged that Putin "chose to ditch Mir" and commit money to the international space station. Economically, he said, the Russians could not have done both.

"It would have been messy," Pike said, "but he could have stuck with Mir as a kind of political statement against the Star Wars plans. The fact that he didn't is a good sign: The Cold War really is over."

Not everyone dismisses Mir's accomplishments so quickly. Charles Vick, acting chief of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, called Mir "the crown jewel of Russian science and technology."

Mir has been "underappreciated in the West," said Vick, who has closely watched the Soviet/Russian space program since the early 1950s.

"There were tremendous minds at work in the Russian space program," he said. "But as a nation they lacked the technological base to take advantage of all they learned. They didn't lack brains, just money."

Mir taught us much about how humans will handle long-term exposure to the microgravity of space, he said, vital knowledge if humans are ever to take long journeys there.

"They hatched a bird up there. They grew small food crops to maturity. They did tremendous Earth resources photography.

"Mir is a benchmark of lessons learned," he said, despite, and even because of, its many troubles over the years.

Vick acknowledged, however, that the value of some of Mir's scientific work is open to doubt. In fact, he said, much of the biomedical research done on Mir will have to be repeated aboard the international space station.

"It's not completely satisfactory to Western standards on documention," Vick said. "NASA's not challenging this work, they just want to see it again, up to Western standards."

But don't scorn the abandoned hulk that Mir has become, he says. "What do they think the international space station is going to look like five or 10 years from now?" he asks.

"There's this Cold War attitude that Mir is worthless. But I've been around too long to believe that. I've seen too much good technology, too much good work to think that. I've seen beautiful Russian hardware that has performed exactly as designed."

Mir's re-entry and disintegration will take place quickly once it starts _ probably within 30 minutes. And it will be spectacular for the very few people, if any, who witness it.

"This will be the largest object ever brought down," said U.S. Air Force Col. Norman Black, of the U.S. Space Command. More than 20 tons of the station are expected to survive re-entry and end up in the Pacific Ocean. The Russians have said the pieces won't fall on any populated areas. But, just in case, they have taken out a $200-million insurance policy.

In January, the Russians dispatched an unmanned cargo ship to attach itself to Mir, providing the thruster power to maneuver the station safely on its final descent. That phase is to begin at 7:32 p.m. Wednesday with two "set-up" engine firings, according to a schedule announced by the space agency, but the final descent could be put off until Thursday or Friday, Russian space officials say.

The most suspenseful phase will come five hours later, when the attached rocket will fire in a sustained burst to point the sprawling complex toward its target zone. If all goes well, fragments will hit the Pacific at 1:21 a.m. Thursday.

Predicting the path of an object that is expected to start breaking up as it enters the Earth's atmosphere is "pretty difficult," said Maj. Scott Edwards of the U.S. Space Command.

The plan is to come into the atmosphere at a steep angle, to limit the size of the landing area, called "the footprint."

Light aluminum parts will completely burn up in the atmosphere, but stronger aluminum and titanium parts will survive the fiery re-entry and reach the Earth's surface. Some 1,500 fragments are expected to fall over a footprint 120 miles wide by 3,600 miles long. Some pieces could weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

Mir by the numbers

143 tons

Weight of Mir's core module and five other components.

17,885 mph

The station's average speed as it orbits about 250 miles above the Earth.

$4.2-billion

The cost to build and maintain Mir, according to the Russian space agency.

104

The number of people who have been aboard the station.

1,500+

Number of glitches, including a near-fatal collision with cargo ship in June 1997 and on-board fire earlier that year.

438 days

Time spent in Mir by astronaut Valery Polyakov on the world's longest space mission

Text for chart not provided for the electronic library. Please see microfilm.

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