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The BBC's Sue Nelson reports
"A mission few people thought would happen again"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 4 April, 2000, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Mir rescue mission blasts off

Mir mission launch
The Soyuz rocket launched without a problem
A Russian spacecraft has blasted off carrying two cosmonauts on a privately-funded mission to resurrect the ageing space station Mir.

The two-man crew lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early on Tuesday. Their main task is to locate an air leak that has been depressurising Mir.

The station has been empty for eight months and was due to be abandoned and left to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

But a group of foreign investors put up $20m in January for further flights to Mir. They want to develop the station for commercial use, including tourism and advertising.

Ever since the Russian money for Mir ran out last August, the station has been left unmanned.

'Safe mission'

Sergei Zaletin and Alexander Kaleri will be the 28th crew to work in Mir. When the cosmonauts dock on Thursday, no-one quite knows what they will find.
Cosmonauts
Alexander Kaleri, left, and Sergei Zalyotin shortly before launch
But deputy head of the Russian Space and Aviation Agency's international department, Alexei Krasnov, insists that the mission is safe.

"We evaluated all safety standards for this trip, we do not have any doubts in terms of safety standards, or else we would not have allowed such a flight," Mr Krasnov said.

15th birthday

"They have to find a way of preserving the station in good condition," said Vladimir Semyonov, a Russian space expert.

He is convinced that foreign investment could help Mir stay in orbit long enough to celebrate its 15th birthday.
Mir
Mir is believed to be leaking air heavily

"I'm optimistic about the station being in space until March next year. There could be problems from the technical side - the equipment, the life support systems, the atmosphere in Mir - but the steel is OK.

It's like a big used car, which you can still use. You just repair some of the parts, but it can still function."

Burn up

In recent years, the Russians have found it increasingly difficult to find the money to keep Mir operating. It had been planned to allow it to burn-up in the Earth's atmosphere this year.

This is the course that the US space agency Nasa wants Russia to take. Nasa believes that Russia cannot support Mir and give its full attention to its role in the International Space Station (ISS).

Russian parts for the ISS have been late and Nasa has had to go back to the US government to ask for more money for Russia on several occasions.

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See also:

04 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
In pictures: Return to Mir
16 Mar 00 | Entertainment
Mir actor remains grounded
17 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Mir to be turned into hotel
03 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Cargo spacecraft docks with Mir
16 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Mir: The end
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