A Russian-born journalist penetrates mission control for Mir's final moments.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
(Page 3 of 7)
My cab crossed the boundary of Moscow in the direction of Korolev, an endless suburban sprawl of dachas, apartment blocks, and industrial parks. In the darkness we drove along an endless brick wall. Slightly before 3 a.m., we finally reached a windowless, marble-clad building with an arched entrance. This was mission control center, known by its Russian abbreviation: TsUP. Since it was completed in the mid-1970s in anticipation of the Soyuz-Apollo docking mission, it has served as the façade of the Russian space program, one of the few facilities in the program open to foreigners and the press. For many years, countless dignitaries and journalists had gathered here to witness crucial launches, dockings, and landings.
The parking lot and adjacent curbs were already jammed with cars. In the building’s vast, sterile, poorly lit lobby, our hosts struggled to process large stacks of accreditation letters and invitations.
Finally I was handed an ID. To my horror, it turned out that its color coding, green, indicated that I was restricted to the International Space Station control room. The amphitheater-
like main balcony of the Mir control room was open only to the lucky owners of blue (guest) and red (specialist) identification cards. A uniformed militia officer stood by the entrance to enforce the distinctions. My desperate pleas to be let in, at least for a short interview of some space program official, had zero effect on him.
My next attempt to enter the Mir control room, this time through the door of the main floor, was foiled by another guard. “We let in only people on the list,” he told me sternly. Someone behind me asked: “Would you let in a cosmonaut?” It turned out to be Alexander Kaleri. In April 2000, he and his commander, Sergei Zaletin, had boarded Mir on a mission advertised as the first in a new era of commercially sponsored spaceflights. As it turned out, the two-month flight, paid for by a group of U.S. businessmen hoping to commercialize Mir, was the station’s last.
As Kaleri squeezed himself into the crowded room, I saw, through the doorway, a staircase on the other side of the room, littered with numerous cables and electronic equipment. Thirty seconds and two flights of stairs later, I entered the balcony of the Mir control room, exactly opposite the militia-guarded entrance. (In Russia, they say, every place has a back door.)
The huge room was flooded with the lights of TV crews and completely jammed with officials, photographers, and reporters. I could see the Mir control floor, and on the main wall a giant screen showing a map of the world. The doomed space station was represented by a shining dot that crawled over the map in a sinusoidal trajectory.
Minutes later, the impassive voice of the commentator announced that the first of three deorbiting engine burns had started. It was 3:32 a.m. Moscow time.