David Aaronovitch column

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I have not had an easy week. But whenever I have felt it all becoming too much I have consoled myself with the thought that, at any rate, I am not on the Mir space station. I am not cowering with two other chaps in the escape pod at the end of a malfunctioning heap of patched up metal and badly soldered wires. And it was not I who accidentally pulled out a vital plug on Thursday, suddenly shutting down what Sci-fi films used to call "life support systems".

It is, of course, amazing that anyone is up there at all. We do not watch Russian televisions, drive Russian cars or eat in Russian fast-food joints. Let alone (if we are even moderately nervous flyers) commit our safety into the hands of Aeroflot or Air Tashkent. Should the Russians build a Siberian answer to Disney World, complete with scary rides (the Anna Karenina train journey in Tolstoyland, or the Chekhov adventure, where you don't move for two hours, for instance) I for one will not be risking my children's lives there. Yet we happily dispatch men and women by rocket, to sit miles and miles above the Earth's atmosphere in an 11-year-old Russian rust-bucket, much of which is held together by pieces of chewing gum and coat hangers. Why do we do it?

As we know, in the early 1960s Russia was "ahead". A paradise for scientists and engineers, the foothills of the Urals were dotted with happy colonies of white-coated brainboxes; colonies with names like Akademgorodok, Magnitogorsk and, of course, Tefalsk. From these wonderful concentrations of intellect emerged the Russian space effort (and the military effort too), the Sputnik, Laika the space-dog and Yuri Gagarin, the space-hunk. The Russians were both technically advanced and - a modern corollary - very sexy.

Then, bit by bit, this image dissipated. The Yanks got to the Moon, and - at the same time - those actually encountering Soviet technology face- to-face became disenchanted. Queues for such luxuries as silk or potatoes might be a sign that this was one anti-consumerist society that had got its priorities broadly right, but it didn't tell us why the hotel loos didn't work, nor why the luggage racks on internal flights would occasionally drop off. This was not, we realised, insouciance. Russia was (in the Ratnerian sense) crap.

So this explains Mir, doesn't it? Well no. It is certainly true that if Mir was American, they'd have junked it long since. Having no history, the Transatlantics are uneasy with anything of any antiquity, and unashamed about trading in. The probable reason why we haven't heard much about the Mars buggy this week, is that they've got bored with it already and are now asking Mr Clinton for a new one ("Tell the President this one keeps banging into rocks, for Chrissake!").

By contrast Mir has suffered 1,500 breakdowns in 11 years, 60 of which have not been repaired. And, because it is a long way from the nearest B&Q, it has had to be mended in a peculiar variety of ways using "local" materials, ie. what the visiting crews had in their pockets at the time, or could be fitted under the captain's seat in a shuttle.

The basic structure of Mir must be pretty solid then; like the good ol' wartime T34, it does its job well. But its survival is therefore, I would argue, a triumph of improvisation - something that Britain used to be very good at (remember the small ships at Dunkirk and the Squeezy bottles on Blue Peter?), but which immense wealth almost always destroys. If you want to see how a society can get by on nothing more than its wits, then look at the way the Cubans have maintained their ancient Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets in the face of the US trade embargo.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that we need to preserve a few poor but clever societies on the planet. Should we send real people to Mars - or even further - they will have to make do with what they can find. "Help will be with you in three light years" won't do the trick.