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Friday, January 22, 1999 Published at 17:39 GMT


Mir stays in space

Three more years in space for Mir

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse.

The Mir Space Station to stay in orbit for three more years.

The Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, has said money to achieve this will come from outside the Russian Government but he did not say who was putting up the finance.

The decision is not altogether unexpected, but it will still dismay US space officials who want to see Mir abandoned.

[ image: Troubled recent past]
Troubled recent past
Russia and the United States did have an informal agreement that Mir would be de-orbited in the second half of 1999.

However, during the past year or so, Russian space officials have frequently spoken about finding non-government sources of money to allow Mir to carry on in space. They also delayed the preparation required to return Mir to Earth and continued to train cosmonauts for future missions.

US space officials will be disappointed and worried. Russia is a partner in the International Space Station (ISS) project and there is a question mark over whether it has the resources to cope with two space stations in orbit.

It is obvious that the Russians have a deep attachment to Mir and have been showing a growing reluctance to give it up.

The oldest space station

Mir was launched in 1986 and is by far the oldest space station ever put into orbit. It has been manned all the time, with the exception of a short break early in its lifetime.

In 1997, Mir underwent a series of almost fatal accidents, including a fire and depressurisation. According to the flight manuals, and shocked NASA officials who only later realised how serious the problems were, Mir should have been evacuated more than once in that troubled year.

That it was not, say analysts, is testimony to Russia's reluctance to lose it. With the Russian space effort a shadow of its former self, Mir has always been regarded as a symbol that the Russians still have a front-rank space facility.

Mir, therefore, has great symbolic status. When it goes, it will mark the end of Russia's independent space capability. Then end of an era that started in 1957 with Sputnik 1.

Junior partners

Russia is a key partner in the ISS, the first sections of which have already been launched. But the ISS is an American-led initiative and, despite their unparalleled experience in long duration spaceflight, the Russians feel like junior partners.

Although Mir is in a much better condition than it was in the troubled year of 1997, it is still an ageing space station that requires a great deal of maintenance.

Some say that keeping it in operation only increases the risks that a catastrophic breakdown will occur.

One of the reasons that Russia wants to keep Mir in space, apart from national pride, is that other countries will pay about $50m a mission to send their astronauts to it.

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