Many think that Mir, the flying Lada, should be abandoned, like other outdated Soviet technology. But not everyone agrees. The Americans, now co-operating fully on the Mir project, point out that it has taught scientists how to cope with crises in space better than any number of simulators and training exercises could. Outdated and falling to bits it may be, but it is still humankind's only embassy in outer space, and may turn out to have been the key to flights to Mars and beyond. Russia is broke, has lost its superpower status and an empire, but arguably, it can still claim to lead the world in the exploration of space, just as it did 40 years ago.
It is difficult now to imagine the shock, bemusement and even fear generated by the news on 4 October 1957 that the Soviets had put a satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. The Americans were humiliated, and the space race was born. For the next few years, one Soviet triumph followed another. Thirty days after Sputnik 1 entered orbit, a mongrel bitch called Laika was fired into the vacuum and survived briefly before being fried in her capsule when the insulation failed. In 1959 Lunik 3 entered lunar orbit and sent back to Earth the first grainy pictures of the mysterious far side of the Moon. Two years on, with all the cash the then-strong Soviet economy could generate at its disposal, chief rocket scientist Sergei Korolev's team put a man into orbit. Yuri Gagarin was feted at home and abroad; nobody made jokes about Russian technology in 1961.
Eight years later it was all so different. A smarting President Kennedy had thrown $30bn at the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its team of rocket engineers, led by the ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun, and ordered it to put a man on the Moon by 1970. On 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on its dusty surface. It was the Russians' turn to feel humiliation.
But the Soviet space programme pressed on. In 1971, the Russians launched the world's first orbiting space station, Salyut 1. At this point the space race effectively ended. The American public had lost interest in the Moon. The final Apollo missions were cancelled due to lack of interest and funds, and the Moon programme ended in 1972. Nasa, reeling from budget cuts, decided to concentrate on the Space Shuttle. Meanwhile, the Soviets, not exactly awash with cash, concentrated on building a series of islands in space. By the late Eighties, they had a huge amount of experience of long-term space missions. They boasted of the science being done in orbit, the new materials, the alloys and glass that could only be created in a weightless environment. And the ever more impressive endurance records set by cosmonauts - 100 days, 200 days, a year in space - proved that people could be residents, not just visitors, outside Earth. But there were always the nagging doubts, accusations that the Salyuts were little more than spy stations, peering down on American military installations.
It was not until the end of the Soviet empire that the two sides teamed up. In 1991, President George Bush paved the way for full co-operation between the old rivals. Russian cosmonauts were to fly aboard the Space Shuttle; in return, Americans would spend time aboard the Russian space station Mir, allowing Nasa to develop expertise in long-duration space flights. It was the perfect marriage between pragmatic Russian engineering and Western flash and cash.
The experience of Mark Severance and his wife, Barbara, is typical of the new era. Both are Nasa employees, but both also have key roles in the current Mir mission. Mark Severance has just returned from Moscow, where he played a key role in the mission control room as Mir lurched from crisis to crisis. Meanwhile, his wife was busy training the latest generation of cosmonauts to spacewalk, in a huge water-filled tank in the Star City space personnel training centre in Moscow. As Nasa-Mir Operations Lead, Mark Severance, who speaks fluent Russian and has been fascinated by space since childhood, has had to face the culture clash head on. The Russians tend to be more laid-back, more pragmatic. Nasa, in contrast, has an urgent professionalism born during the great lunar quest of the Sixties. "Despite the obvious culture differences, we are all space operations engineers. It is interesting that though we may well approach problems in a completely different way, we often arrive at the same solutions," he says.
The traditional Nasa approach is to spend $1bn looking for a quick solution. Even better, spend $10bn making the system so good that no problems will arise. The Russians do not have this luxury. Spare parts are often unavailable, and cosmonauts complain that they are forced to rely on components far past their sell-by date. But this approach has its advantages. "They coped with the recent problems very well. There was real danger, but these were contingency situations that had been thought of before. The entire team responded very astutely and professionally," says Severance, adding that years of tight budgets had taught the cosmonauts to improvise.
Nasa, feeling the financial pinch, has changed its attitudes. Now the buzzwords are "smaller, faster, cheaper". The Russian space programme has always been evolutionary - its current rockets, capsules and space- station modules are closely related to machines designed three decades ago. The Americans are having to copy this approach, using parts and designs proven over years of use.
There were certain advantages to totalitarianism during the Cold War. While Nasa was plagued by the whims of public opinion, television scheduling and advertising, the Soviets could concentrate on getting the job done, confident that all successes would be trumpeted to the hills and mistakes airbrushed out of history. The biggest blow they suffered was the disaster in October 1971, in which three cosmonauts perished in a ferry ship bringing them back to Earth from Salyut 1. Despite the Russians' despair, work carried on. Severance says: "This sort of thing could have cancelled the US space programme, but they came through it. Perhaps they didn't have quite the same degree of reliance on public opinion."
Indeed, 15 years later, an even greater catastrophe nearly put paid to the whole US space programme. On 28 January 1986 flight STS 51-L ended in disaster 73 seconds after lift-off when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded off the Florida coast. Seven astronauts, including a civilian, were killed, and public recriminations started almost immediately. The Salyut 1 disaster, and the later problems with the Mir station, might not have been tolerated in the West. When crisis strikes, the Russians are apt to shrug their shoulders and carry on.
Mir, basically an expanded Seventies Salyut, was launched on 20 February 1986. Astronauts from all over the world have flown aboard this huge orbiting ship that resembles a surreal chunk of plumbing work, its cylindrical modules sticking out of the main unit at crazy angles, everywhere bedecked with glimmering solar panels. Apart from two brief periods, the station has been permanently occupied: Valeri Polyakov spent an incredible 438 days on the station.
Mir is still the largest structure ever assembled in space, the size of an office block, and has been home to thousands of scientific experiments, from environmental Earth surveys, to investigations into the growth of plants and animals in orbit. It is equipped with a shower, a cooker and exercise machines, essential to stave off the effects of muscle wastage in zero-gravity. Life is never comfortable - cosmonauts complain about the heat, and the shortage of water making the shower a once-a-week luxury. There are suggestions that not all the uses to which Mir has been put are in the spirit of international co-operation - the station makes an excellent reconnaissance platform. But for a product of what was until recently a closed and secretive society, Mir has been an exercise in openness.
But the station has come close to disaster several times in the past few months. (Since its launch, more than 1,500 "incidents" have been recorded.) A fire took hold so strongly that at one point flames 12ft long were shooting across the cabin. Then there was the collision between a supply ship and one of Mir's modules, Spektr. The computer keeps breaking down, as did the oxygen generators; the crew reportedly fell out with mission control. It was a sexy story for the world's media: a group of emotional Russians, tearing their hair out as their antediluvian technology finally came crashing around their ears. But that isn't quite the picture painted by those who were there.
Mark Severance started his 25 June shift in Mission Control just as the news came through that the supply ship Progress had rammed Spektr. "There was real danger, but this was a contingency situation that had been thought of before. Once they realised they had a depressurisation situation, they closed the hatches fast and retreated. There was no panic, it was calm and orderly," he says. In fact, this was an almost textbook space emergency, and the cosmonauts coped superbly.
As the summer wore on, more problems hit Mir. Computer glitches often caused the gyrodynes, spinning metal discs that keep the station in the correct orientation to the Sun, to fail, so that the structure started to turn. These problems have never quite turned into disasters, and a new crew is now learning to cope with a new set of crises. The computers failed again, but the crew rose to the occasion, fitting a replacement within hours. Without lessons learnt on Mir, it is unlikely that the next step into space - the ambitious International Space Station - would have been possible.
Next year a huge Proton rocket will lift off from the Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan, carrying the core module of the most ambitious space construction project ever devised. The ISS will be a mini town-in-space, as long as a football field and home to six or seven cosmonauts at once. For the first time, a whole space vehicle will be a truly multi-national effort: Russian, American, European and Japanese modules will be added. The core module will be similar to that of Mir - which, if it survives the trials and tribulations of the next few months, will co-exist with the ISS for a short time. "There is still life on Mir, still a lot of unprecedented science going on," says Severance. "We've grown plants, mustard seeds and other species, that can be eaten on Mir. This is the sort of thing we need to learn how to do if we are to get to Mars."
And Mars is still the ultimate goal. The Russians see the ISS as a stepping stone to the planets, and have recognised that the greatest barriers to long space flights are not technical but psychological. "The Russians have a real commitment to space exploration, they've done amazing things," says Severance. Nobody knows who will first tread the dusty plains of Mars sometime around 2020, but there is a good chance that it will be a Russian man or woman who bounces down the ladder and takes our next giant leap into the cosmos. !Reuse content