Spring came late this year in Moscow. Mornings in March would greet drivers in the frantic Russian capital with gray skies, a drizzling mix of rain and snow, and roads covered with dirty slush. This was the weather I found the day I landed here for a stay that would include witnessing the end of space station Mir’s 15-year mission.
On my way from the airport, I saw a giant billboard towering over a highway. It depicted a spacewalking cosmonaut painting a logo of Java, a brand of Russian cigarette, on the nose of the U.S. space shuttle. A stylized rendering of Mir floated in the background.
I soon discovered that the billboard was one of a series of cigarette ads plastering the city. The entire campaign, unequivocally titled “Strike Back,” was colored by anti-American sentiment. One ad showed a Russian bear conquering the peak of the Empire State Building; another depicted a famous Soviet-era monument—a proletarian and a peasant—overshadowing the Manhattan skyline. Yet another billboard portrayed a U.S. astronaut stunned by a gargantuan pack of Russian cigarettes rising up from the surface of the moon.
My Moscow friends believed the entire campaign was actually staged by U.S. cigarette companies, which had bought a stake in the Russian tobacco industry. To me, though, the blunt images also seemed to be a sign that on the eve of Mir’s demise, Russia’s national pride was aching.
Whatever the case, the deorbiting was taking place at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were not particularly good. Along with coverage of Mir, Russian television news was running stories about an espionage investigation leading to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Washington and Americans from Russia, as well as reports on upcoming contacts between the U.S. Department of State and Chechen separatists, who had recently hijacked a Russian airplane, an act that had ended with a Russian flight attendant being killed. And days before Mir’s deorbiting, NASA increased its opposition to the flight of Dennis Tito, a U.S. businessman who had paid some $20 million to the cash-strapped Russian space industry for a ride on a Soyuz spacecraft and a short stay on the International Space Station.
On the night of March 23, I climbed into a beat-up cab and headed northeast along the Yaroslavl Shosse, a wide and straight freeway that during work hours carries a roaring flood of cars and trucks to and from Moscow. Now the vast road was empty, and sparkled with drizzle. As I looked out the window, my thoughts turned to Mir.
I remembered a cold winter day at a military base hidden in the midst of evergreen woods 500 miles north of Moscow. There, at the age of 18, I was doing my first year of compulsory service in the Soviet army. On February 20, 1986, I was sitting in the base’s closet-like post office, sorting mail, when a friend stopped by to check for letters. “By the way,” he said, knowing my interest in space, “we just launched the new space station called Mir…. They said on TV the thing has six docking ports!” Back then, we had grown accustomed to the space program being surrounded in secrecy, so the release of this information—a sign of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy—was unusual. I could picture Mir as a cluster of modules, with transport ships shuttling between the station and Earth.
Less than a month later, I saw live coverage of the launch of a Soyuz T15 carrying the station’s first crew, Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Soloviev, to a brand-new Mir.
Over the next 15 years, the Russians made 28 expeditions to the station. Except for a short break in 1989, Mir was continuously inhabited from 1987 to 1999. That August, a cash-strapped Russian government decided it could no longer pay for more expeditions.
One privately financed trip to the station was conducted in 2000, but for the most part, Mir passed its final months unmanned, its systems slowly deteriorating in the absence of maintenance. Finally, in the second half of 2000, officials from RKK Energia, the company that built and operated Mir, decided to deorbit the outpost while it was still under control.