Fallen Star

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

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(Continued from page 3)

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.

As I mulled over Grigoriev’s words, I noticed in the foyer an impressive bust of Vladimir Lenin towering over the nicotine-soaked twilight. Looking at it, I could imagine the man’s ideas about social engineering and state-managed economy coming alive again, if only in the appreciation many Russians like Grigoriev feel for the old days.

Around eight in the morning, I reentered the Mir control room via my secret route. I was just in time for the final maneuver, which would send Mir out of orbit and plunging toward the Pacific. Numerous TV reporters and cameramen lined up along the edge of the balcony.

As the flight commentator confirmed normal ignition and burn in the third and final maneuver of the deorbiting process, Mir sent its last flickering video images to mission control: On the big screen, some distant shoreline veiled in splintered clouds floated by peacefully.

The top seats on the balcony were occupied by a crowd of diplomats, primarily from the countries that were under Mir’s reentry path. (Jaime Bautista, ambassador of the Philippines in Moscow, joked that a crash of Mir in Manila Bay would be a turning point in his career.) As they tried to understand the technical jargon and shaky English of the mission control commentators, they watched the map as it showed Mir’s final swing over the Eastern hemisphere.

At 8:31 a.m., Mir left the range

of ground control stations forever, and an official announcement confirmed that the station was on its way into the target impact area: a strip of the Pacific 40 degrees south of the Equator.

On the main screen, the map of the world was replaced with one you usually come across only in the back pages of atlases. Yet this morning, the region of the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and South America became the most watched area on Earth.

I heard a commotion at the back of the balcony and turned around. One by one, captains of the Russian space industry were entering a guarded conference hall hidden behind the Mir control room. I later learned that in a strange reunion, Yuri Koptev, the director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, who had become an unwilling advocate of the unpopular decision to deorbit Mir, and Yuri Semenov, charismatic president of RKK Energia, who for years had defied the pressure to dump his beloved space station, had come together to drink a glass of vodka.

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