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Shuttle-Mir: an experiment in science and politics

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NASA considers its project to put U.S. astronauts on Russia's Mir space station a scientific and political success, but the mission has generated clouds of controversy that now overshadow the planned International Space Station.

From CNN Interactive Writer Andy Walton

In this story:

(CNN) -- In late May, if all goes according to plan, U.S. astronaut Andy Thomas will return to Earth from the Russian space station Mir. Thomas' landing will mark the close of American involvement in Mir, one of NASA's more controversial projects. But doubts over the Mir mission, always an uneasy balance of scientific and political goals, linger.

Critics argue that the project has cost too much for limited returns, and has exposed U.S. astronauts to unnecessary and unacceptable risks. NASA replies that the project has yielded a wealth of scientific data, and that the project was a necessary preparation for the upcoming International Space Station (ISS). The station will be sent into orbit in pieces aboard more than 50 U.S. and Russian missions over the next five years, beginning in June.

NASA officials even refer to the Mir missions as "Phase 1" of the ISS project.

Mir is a showpiece for Russia, a point of pride for a former superpower that has few left. Mir has hosted humans for most of the last 12 years, making it the longest-lived settlement in the frontier of space, where brief excursions are the norm.

But Mir has shown its age. Critical systems have failed, and mishaps -- most spectacularly a February 1997 fire aboard the station and a June 1997 collision with an unmanned supply ship -- forced Mir's crew to abandon their experiments to turn to repair work.

Voices from Mir

Over the past two years, CNN interviewed several U.S. astronauts while they spent time on board Mir. Here's how they described their experiences:

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Part 2: A diplomatic mission in orbit


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