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Monday, February 22, 1999 Published at 06:14 GMT


Mir's last docking

The space station has suffered a series of accidents

A Soyuz space capsule, carrying three cosmonauts, has successfully docked with the Mir space station.

The new crew may be part of the last team to work and live on the Russian space station.

The capsule, carrying Russian Viktor Afanasyev, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere and Slovak Ivan Bella, linked up with Mir two days after blasting off from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan.

Mir's fate has not yet been finalised, but the trio could be the last of 27 manned missions to the space station since the first components were launched 13 years ago. More than 100 men and women have visited Mir during that time.

Russian space officials want to keep the station in orbit for several more years, but it may be discarded as early as August if the Russians cannot find private donors to pay costs of about $250m a year.

The French astronaut, who is paid for by the European Space Agency, is to carry out experiments on how bones change in space - one of the biggest worries for people wanting to spend long periods in weightless conditions.

Chequered history

The BBC's Cindi John: This crew will be the last to visit Mir
Since its launch in 1986, Mir has had a chequered history. During its 13 years in orbit it has suffered fire, a near fatal collision and numerous computer failures, but space officials consider it a tremendous success.

It was only supposed to last five years, but long after its shelf-life has passed, Mir is still operating reasonably well and has given scientists valuable information on how humans cope with long stays in space.

It was meant to have been abandoned last year and eventually replaced by the multi-billion dollar International Space Station, a project which is already way behind schedule and way over budget.

[ image: The new crew includes a Slovak and a Frenchman]
The new crew includes a Slovak and a Frenchman
Mir's increasingly erratic record and the dire financial straits of the Russian space industry meant that last year a decision was made to end the space station's operations in June 1999, allowing it to fall out of orbit and into the Pacific.

The Russians are thought to want to extend the mission at least until the middle of September so they can claim a record of 10 years continuous occupation of a space station.

BBC Science Correspondent Richard Hollingham reports
Last month the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, ordered its lifetime to be extended for a further three years as long as private funding of an estimated $250m a year could be found. However, this failed to materialise.

Whatever the exact timing, Mir's ultimate fate will be a fiery rendezvous with the Earth's atmosphere.

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