Fallen Star

A Russian-born journalist penetrates mission control for Mir’s final moments.

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To the Communist representatives in the Duma, the Russian parliament, the abandonment of Mir was a form of treason. In the week preceding Mir’s reentry, they called for a vote of no confidence in the government of President Vladimir Putin, citing, among other things, the decision to deorbit Mir. (The proposal did not pass.)

Die-hard defenders of Mir staged demonstrations before the Moscow City Hall, the headquarters of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, and the mission control building in the town of Korolev. Throughout Moscow, everyone from taxi drivers to TV stars seemed to have an opinion about the events taking place 130 miles up. Everyone had a plan for saving Mir and with it, Russia’s stature as the leading space power.

Widely publicized proposals ranged from parking Mir in a higher orbit until better economic days to launching a new Mir-2. The latter idea received a lot of attention in the Russian media, since it apparently originated in the Duma. However, the money for such a project had yet to be found; one popular Moscow TV comedian joked that Mir-2 would be built on the bottom of the ocean, so it would never need to be deorbited.

Despite the multitude of opinions, in the attitude toward their space program, the Russians  seemed to be falling into two irreconcilable camps—much like the division that 19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev once characterized as “fathers and sons.”

Mikhail Kirushkin, a veteran of mission control’s public affairs office, held views very similar to those expressed by Communist representatives in the Duma. He saw the space program heading for a gloomy future. “The hole we are falling in has no bottom,” he said to me. “We will continue going down as long as present authorities stay in power.” Kirushkin believed that rampant corruption in the Russian government, combined with what are perceived to be efforts by the United States to squeeze Russia out of the International Space Station, has already doomed the national space effort. “Essentially, we are serving the U.S. space program, and Americans will throw us out as soon as they get from us the hardware and experience they need,” Kirushkin said.

In contrast, the younger generation of Russians, while accepting the realities of today’s Russia, sees the situation less pessimistically. Sergei Kazulin, a former classmate of mine at Moscow State University, said: “Our independent spaceflights are over. International cooperation in space, and launches that our economy needs, will go on. The space program still remains a ‘holy cow’ in our society; our public opinion has always said ‘Don’t dare kill the space program.’ ”

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.

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