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Russia reluctant to let Mir die

November 10, 1998
Web posted at: 3:05 p.m. EST TIME

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- With just 10 days until the launch of the first International Space Station module, Russian officials are showing growing reluctance to bring down their 12-year-old Mir space station.

On Wednesday, top Russian space officials will meet to decide whether the new station should be launched into an orbit closer to Mir, allowing astronauts to salvage some of its equipment for the new station.

Some analysts say the possible change is a ruse to prolong Mir's life past next June, when Russia, whose government is basically bankrupt, promised to bring it down and concentrate its very limited resources on the new station.

In a time of economic depression in Russia and food aid from abroad, its space station still distinguishes the country positively from other nations, analysts said.

The United States has pressed Russia to retire Mir as soon as possible because delays in building the living quarters of the new station have already put the arrival of the first crew back to January 2000, a year and a half later than planned.

Mir experienced a near-disastrous collision in 1997, and was hit by a number of technical problems in the months following the incident.

On Monday Boris Bodin, head of the Russian Space Agency's long-term planning department, acknowledged that Moscow may keep Mir flying longer than earlier announced, until several months after the arrival of the living quarters module in July 1999.

"There is nothing crafty in this," he told Reuters. "Our thinking is based on assuring the long-term presence of man in space."

The chief lobbyist for Mir is the Energiya rocket corporation, which built and owns the orbiting laboratory. "Of course everyone at Energiya is in favor of keeping Mir flying," said an aide to the deputy director.

Some Russian space officials appear to be having trouble moving from a national focus to the International Space Station, which brings together Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada in a $60 billion effort.

The first Zarya module of the station is set for launch on November 20. In its Wednesday review, Russian officials said they expect to decide whether to delay the launch by 10 hours to put it in the same orbital plane as the new station.

Sharing the same orbital plane would make is much easier to transfer equipment from Mir, although NASA, the leading partner in the new station, had not planned to use Mir transplants.

"Of course we should be prepared to use any scientific potential we have on Mir," said Alexei Krasnov, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency's international cooperation department.

"If we have the possibility to remove equipment from Mir and use it on the International Space Station, then we should do it, because it will save money."

"This is not old equipment -- there are some completely new things there," he added.

Kyle Herring, a NASA spokesman, said the U.S. space agency had yet to agree to the last-minute Russian change in plans, but would make a decision this week.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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