Russians blast off to keep ailing Mir afloat

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The Independent Online

Two Russian cosmonauts blasted off for the Mir space station yesterday in a final effort to keep it operating as long as possible, to signal that Russia still has the ability to continue its space programme.

A rocket carrying Sergei Zalyotin and Alexander Kaleri is expected to dock with Mir early tomorrow, said a spokesman for mission control at the launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

They will be the first cosmonauts in a year to enter Mir, which has been home to about 100 people and has orbited the Earth more than 77,000 times - surviving more than 1,600 breakdowns in the process.

The 14-year-old station was expected to be left to burn up in the atmosphere, but got a new lease of life when foreign investors pledged $20m to keep it operating. Walt Anderson, an American millionaire, and other investors hope Mir can be adapted to a range of tasks, from industrial production and scientific experiments, tourism and advertising. The crew will stay on board for 60 days.

"By today's launch we are giving a second breath of life to Mir," said Yuri Semyonov, president of Russia's RKK Energiya company, which built Mir.

Commander Zalyotin declared: "I am raring to get back into battle."