Captain's log: Turned out lights and left `Mir' for ever

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THE HATCH finally swung shut on the Mir space station last night after 13 and a half years, leaving it whirling emptily 225 miles above Earth as its three crew said a long goodbye.

Their final acts were to turn off the refrigerator, exercise machines, and some of the computers, and turn it over to the autopilot. For Sergei Avdeyev, one of the departing cosmonauts, it was the finale of a record- breaking total of 742 days in space.

There were dry eyes in Mission Control, but only just. "The mood here is business-like, but gloomy," said a spokesman, Valery Lyndin. "Every team is sad when it leaves, but this crew is, of course, more sad because normally when one leaves another one follows. But this time they are leaving the craft empty."

The emptiness is metaphorical too: for Russians, Mir has for years been the last emblem of the Soviet space programme, which successfully put the first satellite and the first man into space. It is in bitter contrast to today's economically struggling nation.

"They poured the Russian soul into the Mir, that capacity for incredible suffering and endurance," said James Oberg, an American consultant who has studied the Soviet space programme.

Suffering and endurance were among the bywords of existence on Mir. It was always cramped, and sometimes highly dangerous. In February 1997 a fire broke out on board, and then in June that year a docking exercise went calamitously wrong, causing a cargo ship to crash into one of the six connected modules, puncturing it. The solar panels were also damaged - leaving the frightened crew alternately shivering and sweating as the spacecraft travelled from the shaded side to the sunny side of Earth.

In all, Mir suffered 1,600 breakdowns in slightly more than 77,000 orbits. Yet Russians find it hard to believe, with newspapers there still hoping against hope that money will be found. Even the ground staff at Mission Control have offered to forgo their salaries to keep it aloft. But despite having hosted many scientific experiments, principally discovering the effects of long periods in space on the human body, and politically significant events such as the docking in June 1995 with the US space shuttle, in the end it was business - or the lack of it - that spelt Mir's demise.

Designed to stay aloft for five years, the increasingly creaky station now costs about pounds 160m annually to keep running, including the launch costs to send up new crew and supply ships with food, clothes, water and oxygen, as well as the ground crew keeping in constant touch.

Finally, the Russian government has said the running cost should be shifted to the new joint International Space Station, a huge project involving the US, Russia, Japan and Europe. "If you have an old car, you still like it very much - but a new car is sometimes better," said Sergei Shayevich of the International Space Agency.

Searches for private funding have so far failed, but carry on. The plan is that next spring, a two-person crew will board and refuel the station so it can make a controlled descent into the atmosphere. Mission Control insists nothing will go wrong in the meantime: "The Mir's command system is reliably backed up to guarantee it from failure," a spokesman said. Then they will leave and the 140-tonne craft will fall further into the atmosphere, partly burning up, but still leaving a huge piece that will fall to Earth - hopefully into the Pacific Ocean. But with Mir, you never quite know.

A Space Oddity

February 1986 - The core module, Mir's first building block, is launched.

March 1986 - The first cosmonauts, Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Solovyov, arrive on the Soyuz T-15.

August 1988 - Valeri Polyakov begins a record-breaking 438-day stay on the space station.

May 1991 - Helen Sharman becomes the first British astronaut on Mir.

February 1997 - A fire breaks out after an oxygen-generating canister malfunctions. The crew almost abandon ship.

June 1997 - The unmanned cargo ship Progress M-34 collides with Mir, puncturing the Spektr module and extensively damaging solar panels.

June 1997 - On-board computer crashes.

July 1997 - A power plug is accidentally detached, setting Mir adrift.

June 1999 - Mir cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev becomes the person with the longest total stay in space, 681 days.

August 1999 - Sergei Avdeyev, Viktor Afanasyev and French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere leave Mir, which is mothballed. Avdeyev's record now stands at 742 days aloft.