'Mir has completed its triumphant mission'
NADI, Fiji -- In the end, Mir performed its own spectacular flyover, a blazing tribute on Friday to a 15-year sojourn in space that ended with burial at sea for the crown jewel of Russia's space program.
Half a world away from the South Pacific, mission controllers saluted the aging station, regretful only that Russia had been unable to fund a longer mission.
"Mir has completed its triumphant mission," said an announcer at Mission Control outside Moscow, Russia. "It was unprecedented in the history of space research.
Residents and visitors to the South Pacific islands of Fiji saw first-hand the space station's farewell tour as Mir broke into pieces and streaked across the skies before its splashdown in a remote area between New Zealand and Chile.
CNN Correspondent Hugh Williams, in Fiji, recorded his brief view of the station's final descent, but said the images did not convey the whole story.
"The video that I took shows the massive lights crossing overhead, glowing with a kind of silver and bluish sparkle and leaving a trail of either smoke or vapor," Williams said. "But what the video doesn't really convey is the sensation of having that huge fiery mass of metal come hurtling past. It was scary. It felt really close and it was a very chilling thing to witness."
Williams said the silence that accompanied the light show was "eerie" -- and was followed by a series of sonic booms three or four minutes later.
The successful retirement of the aging outpost brought relief to Pacific Rim and island nations, which had warned residents to seek shelter should the 135-ton orbiter stray from its intended course, across an uninhabited expanse between New Zealand and Chile.
Russian Mission Control ordered Mir to begin its suicidal dive just after midnight EST, using rocket thrusters from an attached cargo ship to direct the plunge. The Russian space agency, Rosaviakosmos, has retired dozens of spacecraft in the area over the years.
Most of the unmanned modular complex disintegrated in the atmosphere. But as many as 1,500 pieces of debris collectively weighing up to 50 tons could have survived, including pieces as heavy as a small automobile.
"Mir was proudly flying around the Earth and with dignity. It accomplished its service life and fell into the Pacific Ocean without hurting anybody," said former cosmonaut Gennady Strekalov from Mission Control in Moscow.
The mood in the Russian space center flight center was somber, the engineers saddened by the exit of Mir but proud of the grace it displayed in its final moments.
Hours earlier, mission controllers plotted the course of the satellite during its final orbital laps, 135 miles (217 km) above the Earth.
They powered up the station's main orientation computer for the first time in months, coaxing the spinning craft to stabilize itself. Mir was allowed to tumble through its orbit to save fuel for the atmospheric entry.
Crown jewel loses its luster
Once the crown jewel of the Soviet space program, Mir racked up an impressive number of accomplishments in the sky -- longest time in orbit for a space station, 15 years; longest time in space for a human, 438 days; and the heaviest object ever to orbit Earth, except for the moon.
Mir survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as a stranded cosmonaut watched the events unfold below. It hosted U.S. shuttle astronauts, a Japanese reporter and a British candy chemist who won a contest for the trip.
But in recent years Mir became increasingly prone to accidents and breakdowns. In 1997, cosmonauts donned gas masks to battle a fire after an oxygen-generating canister burst into flames.
Months later, crew members almost died after a cargo ship crashed into the station, the worst collision in space. The pair somehow located and sealed a dangerous air leak.
Mir alum's bittersweet goodbye
Private investors sought to revive Mir in 2000, leasing the decrepit, desolate station to make it an exotic destination for wealthy tourists. But renovation funds proved scarce and a $20 million deal to send the first customer to Mir fizzled.
Instead Dennis Tito, a former NASA engineer who made a fortune as an investment banker, wants to fly to the international space station, which began hosting crews in November.
A 16-nation project, the space station Alpha could cost $100 billion when completed later this decade. Most of the money will come from the United States, but Russia, the second-largest partner, has considerable investment in Alpha as well.
"Overall, Mir did a wonderful job for far longer than its design lifetime and it ought to get credit for it," said Norm Thagard, a NASA astronaut who visited Mir in 1995.
"Mir could have continued to serve a useful function. The problem is the Russians don't have the economic wherewithal to support both the Mir and their role in the international space station. So in this case, my head overrules my heart. I think the Russians are doing the right thing."
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