Mir's return to Earth marks final demise of Russia's manned space programme

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The Independent Online

The Mir space station will become the largest man-made object to return to Earth at the end of this week when Russian controllers send it plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

The Mir space station will become the largest man-made object to return to Earth at the end of this week when Russian controllers send it plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

Most of the 130-tonne Mir should burn up as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, but about 1,500 fragments - up to 40 tonnes of debris - may reach Earth somewhere east of New Zealand. The Russians say there is no chance of debris striking land, but have still taken out $200m (£140m) of insurance against accidents.

The end of Mir after 15 years in space is seen in Russia asyet another spectacular symbol of the demise of their country as a superpower. The statue of Yuri Gagarin, the world's first astronaut, still stares down on Moscow, but the Russian media has been quick to see the fate of Mir as a decisive moment in the decline of Russia's manned space programme, once a symbol of the country's progress. "The government's decision to dump Mir deals a fatal blow," said Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party,

Russia has 110 satellites still in orbit, but 80 per cent of them are operating beyond their planned life span.Russian Proton rockets take Western satellites into space, but, as they become obsolete, even this source of revenue will diminish. Russia is also participating in the US-led International Space Station programme, providing escape capsules, cargo ships and launch services.

When Mir - the word means both "world" and "peace" - was launched on 20 February, 1986, the Communist Party still monopolised power in the Soviet Union. As it circled the globe, the country from which it was launched split into fragments. The space station itself, designed for a five-year life span, became increasingly battered.

In 1997, an unmanned cargo vessel crashed into it, but its last commander only left the station last summer.

During its 15 years in space 100 people worked in the station at different times, carrying out experiments in its laboratory. But it was never clear if Mir was a cost-effective enterprise.

As it became a relic of a bygone era, nobody in Moscow was willing to take the responsibility for ending its orbits and allowing it to burn up. Only in January did Russia allow a cargo ship to use its rockets to manoeuvre Mir into a position to begin its final descent on Friday.

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