Mir cosmonauts will abandon ship to unmanned existence

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The Independent Online
THE CREW of Russia's long-serving Mir space station aremothballing it and preparing to return to Earth tomorrow. Unless a sponsor can be found, it will orbit unmanned until the end of its life, planned for early next year.

Yesterday was sad for the cosmonauts, Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, and their French colleague, Jean-Pierre Haignere, as they prepared for their homeward journey, knowing nobody would replace them. Mr Afanasyev and Mr Haignere had been on short assignments but Mr Avdeyev held the record of 742 days in space.

Mir, which has had as many problems as an old car, is to be brought into a lower orbit in January or February, after which it will be allowed to burn up in the atmosphere.

Another crew will go up to help to guide Mir into the lower orbit. They will be the last cosmonauts on the first permanent space station in history. Energiya, the company that owns it, had hoped to avoid a gap in which it was unmanned. But the Russian state no longer finances the programme, which depends on sponsors.

A British businessman was supposed to pay pounds 625,000 to travel in Mir this autumn but the plan fell through. A film director's offer to shoot a movie on Mir also came to nothing.

Yesterday the crew installed a back-up navigation system to make sure it will not fall to Earth while unmanned. It has been left in this condition before and mission control says there is no danger.

The Russians, who put the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in April 1961, are not leaving space. As they are to be involved in a new International Space Station, they want to concentrate on that.

However, it marks the end of Russia's independent space programme. And it is goodbye to Mir, which suffered a fire, a collision with a cargo craft and innumerable technical hitches but which, like a Russian car, kept going and never let down its occupants.