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Sunday, February 28, 1999 Published at 14:38 GMT


Mir visitors return to Earth

Recovery crews at the landing site

Two crew members from the Russian Mir space station have returned safely to Earth.

Mir commander Gennadiy Padalka, who had been on a six-month mission, and the first Slovak cosmonaut - Ivan Bella, who spent only a week aboard - landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

They could be the penultimate crew to make the trip back from the ageing space station

[ image: Gennadiy Padalka has not yet recovered his Earth legs]
Gennadiy Padalka has not yet recovered his Earth legs
If Mir does not receive further funding beyond the summer, its remaining crew of Jean-Pierre Haignere from France and two Russians, Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, will leave Mir and allow the station to burn up in the atmosphere.

The Russian Space Agency says it has government funding to keep Mir in orbit until August. Then it is up to the Energiya rocket corporation which owns Mir to find private sponsors to fund costs of about $250m a year. So far it has had no success.

The Soyuz capsule carrying the most recent visitor came down safely in the snowy wastes 58km (37 miles) north of the remote town of Arkalyk.

The cosmonauts were carried out of the capsule, smiling and laughing with the rescue team.

They were examined and taken by helicopter to Arkalyk airport where they received the traditional greeting of bread and salt before heading back to Moscow.

[ image: Final farewell from Gennadiy Padalka and Ivan Bella]
Final farewell from Gennadiy Padalka and Ivan Bella
After a near-fatal collision with a cargo craft in 1997, Mir has enjoyed a relatively trouble-free period, although it needs constant small repairs.

Since the first components were launched 13 years ago, more than 100 men and women have visited Mir.

But Russian efforts to keep the station in orbit beyond the planned retirement date of June have annoyed the United States.

It wants Russia's resources focused on the International Space Station, which is more than a year behind schedule due to Russian delays.

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