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Russians will try to revive ailing Mir space station

By SETH BORENSTEIN - Knight Ridder Newspapers
Date: 04/02/00 22:15

WASHINGTON -- An ambitious renovation project is about to begin 207 miles up.

Two cosmonauts Tuesday will lift off in a Soyuz rocket toward the Russian space station Mir for a 45-day scouting-and-repairs mission. Abandoned last August by the Russian government and slated for a fiery death in Earth's atmosphere, Mir is about to become a home again for people -- and possibly a hotel for the super-rich. (The cost for this ultimate high: $25 million to $40 million per person.)

After docking with Mir on Thursday, Sergei Zaletin and Alexander Kalery will try to turn the 14-year-old leaky and problem-plagued space station into something profitable.

It won't be easy.

"I don't think they have any idea how big a job it is going to be until they start," said John Pike, space policy director for the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington think tank. "Just like any home renovation or work on a jalopy, it generally turns out to be a bigger job than you hope."

The Russians are confident that they can pull it off.

"The situation is under control," Yuri Grigoriev, general designer deputy for RSC Energia, the main Russian space company, said in an e-mail interview. "It is only financing that is needed for timely manufacture and launch of the vehicles."

Energia and Mircorp, a new international company that signed a lease for Mir, hope to turn the pride of the Soviet space program into an advertising venue, science lab and an orbiting tourist destination. Walt Anderson, a Washington venture capitalist, has invested at least $21 million to keep Mir afloat.

The first job is to fix up the space station, nine years past its expected lifespan. Mir is afflicted by an air leak and is partially crippled because of a 1997 crash with an unmanned spaceship full of garbage.

For months Mir also has been dormant, cold and dark.

However, the Russians have a history of letting their space stations stay empty for months at a time -- this is the fifth extended abandonment for Mir -- then flying back and turning things on again.

"It's acceptable, it's doable, it's no problem," said Roald Sagdeev, a former top science adviser to ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and now director of the East-West Space Science Center at the University of Maryland.

"It's like if you have a country house and you abandon it for a few months, when you come back, you find you have to do a lot of little jobs."

"I doubt that it's a tough job," said ex-astronaut Norm Thagard, the first American to live on Mir and now a professor at Florida State University. "I doubt that Mir's in sad shape. It's just been sitting there, whiling away ... unmanned for a couple of months."

Even before Mir went dark, the station required a lot of work -- 75 percent of crew time was spent on maintenance -- said Jeffrey Manber, the Washington-based president of Mircorp. To make Mir profitable, crews have to cut that time to about 25 percent, he said.

Manber said his hope is that after a few weeks, Zaletin and Kalery will come up with a list of what needs to be repaired and how much it will cost. His biggest fear is that "like my first car, once you start fixing something ... it's like a never-ending cycle." All content 2000 The Kansas City Star