Mir space station ends with fiery splashdown

No complications reported as mission ends in South Pacific


KOROLYOV, Russia -- The Mir space station streaked back to Earth early today as a molten blaze of metal and fire, harmlessly raking a swath of the South Pacific like a load of cosmic buckshot.

The controlled descent, which ended Mir's 15-year career as an orbiting laboratory for Soviet and then Russian science, was managed with remarkable precision by the Russian space agency.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled splashdown, Russian officials announced that a U.S. ground station on Guam had confirmed that Mir was descending through the atmosphere according to plan, following a final burn of its retro-rocket system. Just before 9 a.m. Moscow Time (1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) Mir was reported to have crashed into the ocean about 1,800 miles east of New Zealand.

Witnesses on Fiji reported a spectacular display of gold and silver lights streaming across the sky in interviews with CNN.

Five hours earlier, mission controllers waited almost breathlessly as the unmanned supply ship docked to Mir fired its engines successfully for 14 minutes. That was the first of three burns starting Mir's controlled descent. When the engine-firing sequence ended, Mikhail L. Pronin, the 51-year-old chief engineer of the Russian space agency, said: "If I were not at work, I would be drinking at this moment."

The engine burn began as Mir passed over the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas; it ended as the space station flew over Beijing.

Pronin, a barrel-chested man who has worked on Mir since it was launched in 1986, showed an intense determination to bring it to a dignified rest without a hitch. "We are in a working mood," he said, adding, "Tomorrow there will be time for reminiscences."

From airborne observation planes, on television and on the Internet, people around the world stood by to catch a glimpse of the artificial meteor shower that the 134-ton laboratory promised to deliver as it streaked at 18,000 miles an hour through the last of 86,330 orbits made since the Soviets launched it 15 years ago.

Fired into the cosmos by a nation that no longer exists, Mir was much lamented, shouldered by many Russians as a reminder of glories lost -- and not fully replaced by Russia's role in the International Space Station with the United States and 14 other nations.

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