A Russian-born journalist penetrates mission control for Mir's final moments.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, July 2001
(Page 4 of 7)
If there was a single person now holding the fate of Mir, it was Vladimir Soloviev, a member of the first Mir crew, who became station operations manager in 1989. In the early 1990s, while working for a daily Moscow paper, I had interviewed him about the future of Russian spaceflight. Soloviev spoke with hope about Mir-2, and about bigger and better transports shuttling between Earth and the future space station.
I had last seen Soloviev only days before, on the same balcony, explaining to reporters the techniques of deorbiting and all scenarios, probable and improbable, that might arise as the 137-ton station dove toward its fiery death. Now he was speaking about upcoming deorbiting operations. When asked if he would be saddened by the loss of Mir, he replied that his team still had a lot of projects to work on. “But what are your personal feelings [about the deorbiting]?” one reporter asked insistently. “My personal feeling is that everything goes as scheduled…. Everybody wants to see me cry,” he complained.
On the main control floor, I spotted another major player in the Mir saga: Victor Blagov, who for many years managed the shifts of controllers monitoring the station’s systems. When asked the hardest and most politically incorrect questions, he always gave sincere and expert answers, so he was probably the TsUP official that the Russian press corps respected most.
Blagov was sitting at the back row of the control room, in front of a computer display topped with a sign reading “Flight Manager.” On the screen, he watched the telemetry information from the next-to-last burn of the engine of the Progress cargo ship that was docked to the station. This maneuver would send Mir into its final orbit around Earth.
As several of his associates flocked around, Blagov leaned back in his chair, his pose suggesting “Look ma, no hands.” As if to confirm his confidence, the flight commentator reported that the orbit correction maneuver had succeeded and all systems on Mir were performing nominally.
Back on the balcony, I met Yuri Grigoriev, the deputy designer general of RKK Energia, a company born along with Soviet rocketry in 1946. RKK Energia’s vast industrial park was located just a block away from TsUP. In 1965, as a young graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, Grigoriev joined what was then called OKB-1, a top-secret development center that was at the helm of the race with the United States to land a man on the moon. “It was the time of unconditional romanticism,” Grigoriev remembered. Since then, he had managed the development of Russian spacecraft from Soyuz to Mir to Zvezda, a segment of the International Space Station. “Mir has been part of my life since the very beginning,” he said as we walked into the crowded foyer outside the Mir control room, “and it is very sad to see it go before its time.”
Grigoriev’s main concerns extended beyond Mir. He worried about the future of his organization, hanging on a shoestring government budget. “Look, how can I hire young talent, when [Russian] private industry can pay college graduates several times of what I can offer?” he asked. “Good graduates still come to our company to get unique experience and skills, but they won’t stay because it is impossible to survive on our salary.
“As long as our government continues its present policies, I am pessimistic,” he added. “It is abnormal for any country to sell out its national treasures—energy, resources, everything—to a few individuals.” This is a belief that many in Russia share—that by giving control of Russia’s resources to a few “oligarchs,” the government lost its ability to finance the development of various sectors, including technology.