Russian cosmonauts abandoned the space station Mir Friday, closing the hatch of the 140-ton platform that over its lifespan has symbolized both the Soviet Union's great power aspirations and Russia's recent decline into a country plagued by one crisis after another.
Cosmonauts Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, along with Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere, waved goodbye as they moved from the tubular space station to the Soyuz-TM vessel. Three hours later, they detached from Mir, leaving it unmanned. They returned to Earth a few hours later, landing in Kazakhstan early today.
"We are leaving the station in an unusual way, when there is no other crew, with bitterness in our hearts," said Afanasyev upon departure. "We are leaving a bit of Russia, something we built in space, and it is unknown what we will build in the future."
Eventually, if funds are not found to keep Mir aloft, it will be brought down and allowed to burn up in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean early next year. Its destruction will be an inglorious and painful end to the 13-year saga of the longest-manned orbiting space station.
The final decision to give up Mir came after an intensive but ultimately unsuccessful drive to find commercial sponsors. The Russian Space Agency at one point offered to use it for advertising. Later, an idea was floated to make a film about it. This year, a British businessman flirted with the idea of taking a space ride to raise cash, but backed out. A joint U.S.-Russian program of sending American astronauts to Mir expired. Appeals to the Russian public were met with indifference.
Russian space agency officials have said it would cost $250 million a year to keep Mir aloft, but Western experts have suggested the actual cost may be about $100 million.
The leadership of Russia's space program insisted up to the last day that the space station is workable. Yuri Grigoryev, deputy chief designer at Energia, the Russian rocket corporation, told the Russian Tass news agency that studies had shown the station could remain in space until 2003 to 2005.
The end of the Mir is just one of many symbols of Russia's decline in the years since the Soviet collapse in 1991, as it struggled to establish free markets and democracy at a time of upheaval and against the enormous obstacles left from the Soviet era. Russia simply cannot afford all the expensive icons of global power that it inherited from Soviet Union, but has been agonizingly slow in deciding what to do with them.
A key consideration in the decision to scrap the Mir was Russia's participation in the next generation of space platforms, the 16-nation International Space Station. The United States had urged Russia to close down the Mir so it could use its limited budget for parts of the new international station. Russia's work on the new station has lagged far behind schedule because of financial problems.
The Mir's base block was launched by the Soviet Union on Feb. 20, 1986, and its original service life was rated as five years. Over the next 13 years, it hosted 24 international scientific programs and 17,000 scientific and technological experiments.
Researchers from 15 countries flew aboard the station, which carries 11.5 tons of scientific gear. Mir hosted a total of 102 cosmonauts and astronauts; in 1995 a Russian cosmonaut, Valery Polyakov, logged the longest stay in space, completing a 437-day mission on Mir.
In its later years, work aboard Mir became anything but routine. Astronauts have described it as a flying do-it-yourself repair ship, which required almost constant attention.
Several accidents were near-catastrophic, including a fire. The most serious was its June 25, 1997, collision with unmanned Progress cargo vessel, which punctured the skin of the space station and threatened the lives of the two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut on board.
The crash, during a failed docking procedure in which a Russian cosmonaut was using a joystick-like control system to guide the cargo vessel, made useless one of Mir's five attached modules, the Spektr, and raised many questions about the cost and viability of the aging station.
Later repairs reclaimed some of the Mir's internal functions for experiments. Russian officials have often hailed the station as a learning platform for long-duration space exploration.
The current crew attempted to prepare Mir for several months of mothballed, unmanned flight. According to the Interfax news agency, in six to eight days the Russian ground controllers will shut down the main computers and the "gyrodines" that preserve Mir's orientation to the sun. The station then will begin to drift.
Much of the station's electronic gear was disabled by the outgoing crew, but some basic systems will continue to operate, and ground controllers are said to be able to restart the equipment on board if need be.
According to Russian space officials, if no financing can be found -- which seems virtually certain -- a "liquidator crew" will be flown to Mir next February or March to begin the final preparations for bringing it down.
The station is now in a relatively high orbit, 223 miles up, and another Progress cargo ship will be sent to nudge it into a lower orbit before it burns up over the Pacific, if all goes as planned.
Former Home in the Sky
After 13 years of circling Earth, at a distance of more than 200 miles, the Russian space station Mir is nearing the end of its life. The last long-term resident cosmonauts left the station yesterday, and Mir may be sent plunging toward Earth to burn up in the atmosphere next year.
Some Mir Highlights
Core module -- the first part of Mir, which later became a giant tinker toy -- is launched.
Russians set space endurance record of 366 days.
Valery Polyakov completes longest consecutive stay in space: 437.7 days, a record that still stands.
Cosmonaut Sergei Vasilyevic Avdeyev completes his third stay in space, for a total of 714 days.
Troubles plague Mir all year, including:
In February, fire fills Mir with smoke, but the crew puts it out with a wet towel and fire extinguisher.
In March, the primary oxygen generator fails, forcing the crew to rely on a chemical generator.
In April, leaks in the cooling systems send temperatures soaring.
In June, the cargo ship Progress collides with Mir during docking, punctures the Spektr module and damages a solar panal and a radiator.
Except for brief periods from 1986 through 1989, Russian cosmonauts have lived in Mir continuously.
Scientists from 15 nations, including seven Americans, visited the station.