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.
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.”