Farewell to a Morris Minor of the heavens

I shall miss Mir hugely. It made space human, unpredictable and therefore interesting.

IF YOU seek to plot the history of us earthlings, then look to the heavens. As you read this, the last operational crew of Mir will be back on the soil of mother Russia. Barring miracles, all that remains for the world's first manned space station is the knacker's yard: more precisely, controlled descent to a lower orbit and then burn out in the atmosphere. So forgive me if I recount the story of its life. For the story of Mir is the story of our times.

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.

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