Farewell to a Morris Minor of the heavens
I shall miss Mir hugely. It made space human, unpredictable and therefore interesting.
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Saturday 28 August 1999
When it all began, in early 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power but a year,and his revolution had barely started. Mir might have been Russian for "peace", but like that word in the Kremlin's dictionary of propaganda (viz. "the peace-loving policies of the Soviet Union" then unfolding in Afghanistan and elsewhere) the craft was a projection of Soviet power. And looking back, the launch of the first module of Mir marked the last apogee of that power - the final trick of the conjuror before his magic box spilled all over the floor.
If power lies in the perception of power, those early months of 1986 were the last time you could make a case that the Soviet Union was level with, or even marginally ahead of the United States in the Top Nation stakes. That January the Challenger shuttle blew up - a disaster that, quite apart from shutting down the country's manned space programme for two and a half years, was a huge blow to America's faith in itself. And just four weeks later, Moscow successfully launched Mir, the world's first manned space station. For many a Cold War warrior, it was an uncanny throwback to the Sputnik in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin's first manned flight in 1961. The Reds, it seemed, were on another roll. Could America keep up ?
In fact, Mir was less a roll than a death rattle. A couple of months later, on 26 April, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, laying to rest any illusions about the primacy of Soviet civil technology. That autumn in Reykjavik, by blocking what would have been the biggest nuclear arms reduction deal in history, Gorbachev admitted he had no answer to President Reagan's dream of Star Wars. The following May, a German teenager landed his Cessna aircraft next to Red Square, making a mockery of what were supposedly the most impregnable and ruthless air defences in the world, which just four years earlier had shot down KLA 007 when it violated the eastern borders of Mother Russia. At that point, in retrospect, the game was up.
But Mir went on regardless. Far below it, the Communist empire would dissolve and the Soviet Union disappear. Presidents and prime ministers, wars and plagues came and went. But despite the periodic alarums, you always knew Mir would never meet a Challenger's end. Its crises were not existential, but the smaller dramas of life in Russia: leaky pipes, overflowing lavatories, dodgy food, and intermittent power failures. In short, the daily struggle to get by.
Over the years the Shuttle grew into the sports utility vehicle of space, comfortable (or relatively comfortable), multi-functional and reliable as clockwork. Mir was a Morris Minor of the heavens - modern enough at the outset, but by the end a patched-up, worn-out relic. The records it has set are not flashy hi-tech marvels, but quintessentially Russian feats of endurance. Ask a Mir cosmonaut not what he did, but how long he did it for. The answer from Sergei Avdeyev, a member of this last returning crew, would be 742 days in all, more than two years, longer than any other human has ever spent in space.
Now it is gone - and what next? Space will continue to be explored, but globalisation is taking over. Henceforth, Americans, Russians, Europeans and Japanese will co-operate: not in a new spirit of selfless brotherhood between nations, but in deference to the realities of a business like any other, where the bottom line is all, and survival can hinge on a generous sponsor. Such has been Mir's story of late. The Russian state is broke and the craft's parent company, the Energiya space corporation, has simply been unable to find a new commercial backer.
That, I suppose, is progress. But I shall miss Mir hugely. It made space human, unpredictable and therefore interesting. When Europeans send up their Ariane rockets from Guyana, only a launch pad explosion makes the event newsworthy. The Shuttle is a little better, but its robotic, disembodied efficiency scarcely sets the pulse racing. "Houston, do you read me ... Over" - and for me, alas, Out. Again, the choice is between tedium and calamity. There are the planetary probes of course, mindboggling in terms of time and distance. But am I alone in failing to palpitate with excitement at grainy photos of rocks and sundry other indeterminate blobs, purporting to be proof there was once water on Mars ?
Mir however was different. For all the glitches, the space station has been a huge success. It was meant to stay up for five years, but managed more than 13. Over that time it was emblem first of rivalry between the superpowers, then their wary co-operation, and finally of an American financial and technological juggernaut with which Russia, for all its ingenuity and gifts of improvisation, simply couldn't compete. And for Russia read, right now, the rest of us as well. Small wonder the Presidents of Russia and China were making common but impotent cause at a summit this week about the need for a multi-polar world, in which there was some counterweight to America. They must have had Mir in mind.
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rihanna 'nude photos' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Frank Lampard equalises for Manchester City against Chelsea: how Twitter reacted
- 3 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, review: Revolution still seems far off
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friends 20th anniversary: The highs and lows of the cast's careers since TV series ended in 2004
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Friends 20th anniversary: Six things we wouldn't have without influential comedy series
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'