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Saturday, August 28, 1999 Published at 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK


Mir crew home safely

It's the start of a long, lone space odyssey for Mir

A small step for its final crew, a sad day for Russia's space programme: after more than 13 years in orbit, the ageing Mir space station has been abandoned.

The BBC's Paul Anderson: "Mir will continue it's orbit as a lifeless coffin"
The three-man Franco-Russian crew has already arrived safely back on earth in their Soyuz spacecraft.

They landed at 0035 GMT in a deserted steppe in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.

[ image: Touchdown for Mir's crew in the Kazakh steppe]
Touchdown for Mir's crew in the Kazakh steppe
About three-and-a-half hours earlier, the two Russians and one Frenchman had climbed from the Mir's main module into a Soyuz capsule, and undocked from the space station on schedule at 2114 GMT.

Viktor Afanasyev and Jean-Pierre Haignere had been on Mir since February, while Sergei Avdeyev has been in orbit for 389 days.

"With grief in our soul .... we're abandoning a piece of Russia, abandoning something we constructed in space, and it's unclear what we'll build next," said Mr Afanasyev before leaving Mir.

No money to continue

Lack of money means it is highly unlikely that anyone will live on Mir again.

In February or March next year, a two-man crew is expected to return to prepare the space station for its end.

[ image: Mr Haignere's wife greets him with water on landing]
Mr Haignere's wife greets him with water on landing
Experts believe the Russian authorities will allow it to fall out of orbit and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Large chunks are likely to reach the surface, but recently installed navigation equipment should ensure these fall into the ocean.

Spaceflight record

Mr Avdeyev comes back with the record for the most time spent in space. By Saturday, he will have clocked up a total of 742 days of space flight - two months longer than anyone else has achieved.

Mir is a testament to Russian technology and a source of enormous pride. It has been a base for astronomical observations and scientific experiments, as well as giving astronauts experience of long duration spaceflight.

This, in particular, will prove invaluable if the international community goes beyond the Moon and sends a manned flight to Mars.

Numerous leaks

[ image: A cosmonaut's farewell to a home away from home]
A cosmonaut's farewell to a home away from home
However, Mir is now showing its age. When it was launched in 1986, it was only supposed to fly for five years. It has suffered an increasing number of problems.

There have been numerous leaks and even a collision with a cargo craft in 1997 that nearly killed its crew, including the British-born astronaut Michael Foale.

The United States, irritated by Russia's attempts to prolong Mir's space life, has asked Moscow to focus its meagre funds on the International Space Station (ISS) now being constructed in orbit.

The economic problems that spell the end of Mir have also delayed this new project.

Nevertheless, many Russians cling to the hope that Mir can be maintained. Its owner, the Energiya space corporation, continues to search for the private funds that would send yet another crew into orbit.

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