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Future of Mir in doubt after cosmonauts return home

June 16, 2000
Web posted at: 11:59 a.m. EDT (1559 GMT)


In this story:

'Conditions on Mir tougher'

MirCorp viewed as last hope

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



ARKALYK, Kazakhstan (CNN) -- Sergei Zalyotin and Alexander Kaleri hit the Earth with a bump Friday after having spent two months repairing the aging Mir space station. Their mission could be the last to the orbiting outpost.

Unless private investors commit enough funds to send another manned flight, Russia plans to direct Mir into a fatal plunge into the ocean later this year. However, space officials said a new crew was already in training for any eventual further mission.

A Soyuz capsule carrying Zalyotin and Kaleri touched down by parachute in the steppes of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan early Friday morning. The two emerged from the black capsule looking pale but well. They described what was at times an exhausting mission.

'Conditions on Mir tougher'

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"We must admit conditions on Mir have become tougher," Kaleri told reporters who had been whisked to the scene aboard a fleet of rescue helicopters.

"The burden on the crew is high in the initial weeks," the flight engineer said. "We had to open up Mir and repair the leak. Before leaving we had to seal it up again. That was also difficult. After all, the station is fairly old now."

Designed to last five years, Mir has experienced numerous mishaps during its 14 years of service, including a 1997 collision with a cargo ship that damaged Mir's hull, leaving minute cracks through which oxygen has slowly seeped into space. A main task during the last mission was plugging the leaks.

Some of the difficulties the two encountered were the result of Mir being left unmanned for more than seven months. During their stay they had to resuscitate the station. And before they departed they had to mothball it again, at least until autumn, when a group of international investors hopes to send up another mission.

Zalyotin, the mission commander, said Mir was in "good shape" and could fly unmanned for another six months, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

MirCorp viewed as last hope

The Russian government had planned to dump Mir this spring because of funding problems but extended its time in orbit after the Netherlands-based MirCorp signed a lease on the station and provided funds to send up the new crew.

RKK Energia company, which built and runs Mir, has a 60 percent stake in MirCorp and the remainder belongs to private investors. MirCorp plans to use the station as an orbiting hotel for wealthy space tourists.

"The cosmonauts confirmed that Mir is in good working order, and they demonstrated the value of Mir to the world's business community," said Chirinjeev Kathuria, one of MirCorp's main investors, in a statement.

Russian space officials view MirCorp as the last hope to save Mir, a symbol of the once glorious Soviet space program that put the first satellite in orbit and the first person into space.

The U.S. space agency NASA has been vexed by Moscow's decision to extend Mir's life, saying it diverts scarce Russian resources from the International Space Station project.

The new station is behind schedule because of Russia's failure to deliver a key component, the Zvezda service module, currently set to be launched July 12.

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Cosmonauts back on board Mir
April 6, 2000
First privately funded manned space mission blasts off for Mir
April 4, 2000
Crew poised for return to Mir on Tuesday
April 3, 2000
Mir to stay aloft with International Space Station hardware
January 20, 2000

RELATED SITES:
NASA Shuttle-Mir Web
Where is Mir?
Office of Space Flight - Mir
MirCorp
International Space Station

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