Fallen Star

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

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At 8:45 a.m., the mission control commentator reported that the U.S. radar station at the Kwajalein atoll detected Mir on its planned descent trajectory. Seconds before 9 a.m. the voice announced: “The station Mir concluded its triumphant flight.” There were no cheers or applause, just a sigh of relief that swept throughout the control floor and the balcony.

The map disappeared from the big screen, and was replaced by a diagram of the Mir space station with a caption in Russian: “OK [Orbital Complex] Mir, Launch: 20.02.1986, Descent: 23.03.2001.”

The bear-like figure of Yuri Koptev appeared from the conference room and was immediately aimed at by dozens of TV cameras and microphones. “This is a sad but inevitable event,” Koptev said stoically. “This spacecraft created the foundation for the International Space Station.” Following his statement, Semenov and other officials emerged from their retreat.

Half an hour later, reporters and officials weary from the sleepless night gathered in a large conference center known as the blue room. Only there, after many hours in a windowless space, did I discover that the new day had started.

As the officials took seats around the conference table in the jammed room, Koptev joked: “Let our orphan Semenov take the central seat.”

“This station could fly for another two or three years,” said the RKK Energia president. “However, our goal was to end the mission in a civilized way.”

Koptev again and again appealed to the press to understand the mission planners’ predicament—that in Russia today, the money just can’t keep pace with the ingenuity. “We are all very smart but very poor,” he said. “We understand the emotions involved in this decision; however, we had to make this step.”

Koptev’s arguments failed to silence his critics. As I returned home from the long day at the TsUP, Moscow radio was reporting that Communist representatives in the Duma, citing the decision to deorbit Mir, had called for Koptev’s resignation.

On a train leaving Moscow, I struck up a conversation about the deorbiting with the fellow sharing my car. It turned out he used to work at a research facility in the small eastern Russian town of Nizhniya Salda, where he had participated in the development and testing of engines for rockets and spacecraft, including Mir and Soyuz. “We are yet to learn how much we have lost,” he said about Mir. “I see two possible outcomes: Either our space program will go down the crapper, or in a few years they will fathom what happened and make steps to rebuild the station.”

When I quoted the price of operating Mir, he replied: “What is 250 million dollars a year for a country like Russia? Nothing. This is our Russian way: first to lose, rob, and destroy, and then to rebuild from scratch. The entire Russian history is like that.”

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