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Space Monday, 1 June, 1998, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Money makes Mir go around
mir
Still orbiting earth but beset by problems
The growing list of systems failures and more mundane problems, like the breaking of a hatch spanner has once again put the spotlight on the ageing Russian space station Mir. The BBC's Senior Russian affairs analyst, Stephen Dalziel, looks back at the space station's history.

Mir is a source of pride for Russians. It is the only space station which has orbited around the earth on a long-term basis. It has shown a typically Russian characteristic: durability. When it was launched in 1986 it was meant to last for five years.

But political troubles on Earth meant less attention was devoted to replacing it.

In 1991 when Soviet politicians should have been debating Mir's future, they were involved in a power struggle over the future of the country. A Communist coup failed and the Soviet Union, which had dreamt up and financed Mir, finally collapsed.

When Russia took over responsibility for much of the Soviet Union's legacy, including the space programme, it was recognised Mir was one of the more prestigious leftovers from the USSR.

But it suffered from the biggest single problem facing all areas of ex-Soviet life: a shortage of money.

Scientists and politicians quickly realised the uniqueness of Mir could be turned to financial gain. Where else could foreign astronauts gain experience of living and working on a space station?

An international project to put a station into space would not be ready much before the turn of the century. Foreigners were invited to take part in Mir missions, providing enough money to prevent the ailing Russian space programme from collapsing completely.

This plan has worked well. There has been a steady stream of foreign astronauts to Mir, bringing in much needed cash.

But in 1997 the Mir project turned sour. In February there was a fire on board. It was extinguished within two minutes but it emphasised the dangers faced by the crew.

In June an unmanned cargo ship crashed into the side of the space station, puncturing a module and wrecking a solar panel.

The crew managed to carry on until the station could be repaired. But then the on-board computer broke down. Just as it was up and running again one of the cosmonauts accidentally unplugged it, sending the space station once again spinning through its orbit out of control.

There have been changes of personnel and Mir has come through these problems still operating.

But the difficulties in opening the hatch, and the fact three spanners were broken in the process, raised once more the suggestion it was time to abandon Mir for good.

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