Russia Returns to Mir: Why?

By Paul Hoversten
Washington Bureau Chief
posted: 12:44 pm ET
03 April 2000

WASHINGTON -- There's an old Russian proverb that says you don't throw away a pair of shoes until you first get new ones.

That might help explain how Russian managers are feeling these days about their old Soviet-era space station Mir, which has been orbiting Earth for 14 years -- nine years past its design life -- and is about to receive two more guests, or cosmonauts, this week.

Sure, it's old and well-worn -- some might even say risky. But until the International Space Station (ISS) comes along, why toss Mir out? For all its problems, Mir is still the world's only functioning outpost in space.

"It's a matter of national pride for Russia to keep it going," said Charles Vick, a space analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "Mir was almost the equivalent of the lunar landing for them. It's hard for them to give it up because it's their flagship out there saying it's still part of the game."

Launched in 1986, Mir continues to limp along despite calamities that might have finished off lesser spacecraft.

Three years ago Mir suffered an on-board fire and a collision with an empty Progress supply ship. The crash punctured the hull of an attached science module, Spektr, forcing the U.S.-Russian crew aboard to seal the module off from the rest of the station.

But over its lifetime, Mir has established itself as the premier site in space for studying long-term effects of weightlessness on the body. NASA found it so valuable as a testbed for the ISS that the U.S. paid the Russians nearly half a billion dollars to gain experience for astronauts.

Now however, NASA is keen to have the Russian government and the Russian space company that owns Mir, RKK Energia, bring the old station out of orbit so that scarce financial resources go to the new station.

Mir costs about $250 million a year to operate. It had been deserted since the last Russian cosmonauts left in August 1999.

Today it is cold and partially depressurized. Air is slowly leaking from somewhere, probably the Kvant 2 module, but Mir's orbit remains stable.

A new crew -- bankrolled by Washington financier Walt Anderson -- is scheduled to arrive in early April for a stay of at least 45 days.

That has caused NASA to question whether the Russians intend to honor their commitment to the ISS. Russia's cabinet recently voted to allow rockets and cargo ships that were intended for the ISS to be used on Mir.

"We'd like to know why the Russians feel it's safe to go up to Mir," NASA Administrator Dan Goldin told reporters recently. "The Russians have got to focus, and the primary focus is meeting their commitment to the International Space Station. If Mir saps their strength in meeting their commitments, then we have serious problems."

The cost of the two Progress cargo ships, a Soyuz capsule for the crew and the three booster rockets needed for the Mir mission is estimated to cost about $19 million. Russia has said it will spend the same amount to build new spacecraft and rockets for the ISS.

Russia has earmarked a total of $42 million for its share of building the $60 billion ISS.

While Goldin said it is not up to NASA to tell the Russians how to run their own space station, NASA does have a responsibility to American taxpayers and the space agency's 14 other partners to see the ISS through to completion.

"In no way is the operation of Mir to interfere with their commitment to the ISS," he said. "We are at the moment of truth."

Once the ISS is completed in 2005, NASA has said it will far outstrip anything Mir has been able to do. At 470 tons, more than four times the weight of Mir, the ISS will measure 361 feet (110 meters) end-to-end -- equivalent to the length of a football field.

It can house a crew of six or seven in 46,000 cubic feet (1,300 cubic meters) of pressurized volume -- the equivalent of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets. That's four times as much living space as is available on Mir.

Its six labs, two habitation modules and two logistics modules will have at least seven times as much electrical power as cosmonauts have available aboard Mir.

But that's down the road. Right now, the embryonic ISS consists of a Russian-built power and communications module and a U.S. connecting tunnel. The third piece, the Russian-built crew quarters, is to be launched in July aboard a Russian rocket.

Until that's in place -- and the first crew takes up residence later this year -- the Mir station, for all its problems, is the only outpost where anyone can live for long periods in space.

"I don't think the Russians would send a crew up if they thought it was unsafe," said Marcia Smith, a space analyst with the Congressional Research Service. "I haven't heard anything that the conditions are unsafe."

How much longer Mir will continue to fly "is entirely up to the Russian government," Smith said. "The question really is how much do they want to allocate from the budget? The Russian government has the money…but they'll need to decide how to spend it. This is one of those things that is going to play out a bit at a time."

Vick of the Federation of American Scientists is less optimistic about Mir's future.

"If the money's there, they could probably operate it for a year or so," he said.

Although Russia's new president, Vladimir Putin has said he supports a strong space program, "I'd like to know where the funding is coming from," Vick said. "Unless they're going back to a science-fiction economy…I don't see how they can keep it going much beyond this year."

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