Mir was cranky, but it symbolized much to Russians

Space station showed nation was superpower - and had persevered

March 24, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - That was some symbol that went streaking through the sky over Fiji yesterday, breaking up into pieces and sizzling into the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The Mir space station went up as a symbol, and it came down as a symbol. In between it came to stand for perseverance, if nothing more. Perseverance by an intrepid series of cosmonauts and ground crews in the face of fire, collision, leaking air, collapsing finances, cultural conflict and personality clash.

To the very end, there were Russians who wanted to keep Mir going as a manifestation of Russian prowess. They were to be disappointed. But hours after the 15-year-old Mir broke up during its descent, the general director of the Russian Aerospace Agency, Yuri Koptev, was saying the day will come when a new Russian space station will be launched into orbit.

It's impossible, said Bryan Burrough, the author of a book on NASA's participation in the Mir program, to explain to Americans what the space station meant to Russians.

"It's like somebody wanted to take away Mount Rushmore, except it's more than that," he said yesterday from his home in New Jersey. "Yes, it was falling apart. And yes, they didn't do a lot of good science up there. But it showed the world that Russia was a superpower."

And its crews also gave Americans a useful lesson in the "seat-of-the-pants ingenuity that kept it up there so long," he said.

During the early morning yesterday, controllers outside Moscow conducted a series of three rocket "burns" that slowed the Mir and eventually dropped it from its orbit. The 143-ton spacecraft plowed into the atmosphere and burst into pieces. Some of it vaporized, and some landed in the Pacific, in the large zone that had been laid out for it.

The Mir did not go careering into Tokyo or Chile, and there were no reports of fishermen or anyone else being injured. It was the largest piece of equipment ever deliberately brought crashing down to Earth from space.

"But let's not break our arms slapping the Russians on the back for this," Burrough said. "Let's keep in mind, the South Pacific is a large place. It is not difficult to hit."

After Mir vanished, the staff at Mission Control in the town of Korolyov gathered and shook hands. "Russia is and will remain a space power," Koptev said.

The Mir went up in 1986, when the Cold War and the Space Race were still very much going concerns. It demonstrated Soviet prominence to the whole world. It was expected to last three years, or maybe five. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, surprisingly enough, it got a new lease on life.

The incoming administration of Bill Clinton latched onto the idea of sending Americans up to Mir as a way of preparing for the more substantial International Space Station and to show that the 1990s were going to be different. Mir - which is Russian for peace - came to stand for international coexistence.

"The Space Race was one of three or four defining activities of the Cold War," John Pike, director of a Virginia-based organization called GlobalSecurity.org, said yesterday. "Mir was a very important component in ending the Cold War, because it showed everybody, `No kidding, it really is over; the future will be different from the past.'"

A Japanese journalist went up on Mir. Two French cosmonauts - Claudie Deshays and Jean-Pierre Haignere - met during training and got married. An American took up an electric guitar (which went down in flames yesterday).

For all that, the international cooperation never came easy. NASA, Burrough said, didn't want to worry about the psychological implications of confining three people - with different styles, different languages and different attitudes - in a 43-foot-long craft for extended periods of time (more than a year in some cases). The American agency generally thinks in terms of engineering, he said, and most of its engineers think of psychology as a lot of "hokum."

In that sense, he said, "Mir has been a hard lesson."

A further problem, Pike said, is that NASA as an organization doesn't understand that the space program is not an end in itself.

"They think all this stuff is real," he said. "They don't realize it's fundamentally political theater."

And that has made the American side particularly "tone-deaf" to Russian sensibilities, he said.

Now, Europe, Russia and America are cooperating on the International Space Station, but it's clear to everyone that the United States is the senior partner. Two Russian cosmonauts refused to go to the space station because they would have to be under the command of an American. Russian Aerospace Agency officials in Moscow chafe under their second-fiddle status.

But Mir was costing about $200 million a year, and to keep it going Russia would have had to pull out of the ISS altogether, which would have been too politically costly to contemplate.

Yesterday, though, controllers and former cosmonauts could remind themselves of the pride they feel in the long tenure of the Mir. It wasn't really a funeral because Mir had already been abandoned last year, but it was a moment to reflect on the miles traveled - about 2 billion of them, all told, from the arid launch pad left behind in Kazakstan on Feb. 20, 1986, to the last salty plunge into the South Pacific.

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