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Space crew reaches Mir for new -- and possibly final -- mission

Mir space station
Maneuver a 3-D model of Mir
Soyuz TM-29 spacecraft lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome
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Watch the docking, from a camera mounted near where the two crafts touch.
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February 22, 1999
Web posted at: 4:46 a.m. EST (0946 GMT)

KOROLYOV, Russia (Reuters) -- A Russian space capsule docked with the orbiting station Mir on Monday to allow a joint Russian-French-Slovak crew to embark on what could be the last mission to the aging craft.

Soyuz TM-29 capsule docked Mir at 8:36 a.m. (0536 GMT). The hatches were later opened and Russian commander Viktor Afanasyev, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere and Slovak Ivan Bella joined two Russians, Gennady Padalka and Sergei Avdeyev, who were already on the station.

The pictures from space beamed at the mission control at Korolyov, near Moscow, showed the cosmonauts smiling and looking well after their two-day flight.

"The docking went well," Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Space Agency, said in a television interview.

He declined to say whether this would be the last manned flight to Mir, which has been in space orbit for 13 years. No other missions are scheduled but Russian space officials hope to keep Mir in orbit beyond its scheduled retirement this summer.

Bella will spend eight days on Mir before returning to Earth with the craft's current commander, Padalka. Avdeyev, who has already spent half a year in orbit, will stay for another six months and return in August with Afanasyev and Haignere.

The crew will carry out a series of scientific experiments, including geophysical studies to predict earthquakes and volcano eruptions.

Haignere, an air force pilot who visited Mir for three weeks in 1993, plans two space walks during his mission. He is due to install and remove scientific experiments from Mir's exterior.

After a near-fatal collision with a cargo craft in 1997, Mir has enjoyed a relatively trouble-free period of late, although it needs constant small repairs.

The Russian Space Agency says it has government funding to keep Mir in orbit until August. After that it is up to the Energiya rocket corporation which owns Mir to find private sponsors. So far there has been no success.

Foreign cosmonauts who go to Mir are playing an important role in subsidising the $200-$250 million a year needed to keep the station in orbit.

Slovakia has said it is writing off about $20 million of Soviet-era debt that Moscow owes in exchange for Bella's flight. France is paying $20.6 million, the European Space Agency says.

Russian efforts to keep Mir in orbit past an original retirement date of June have irritated the United States, which has pressed Moscow to focus its meager resources on the International Space Station.

The new station is more than a year behind schedule because of Russian delays.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

Saturday mission may herald Mir's final chapter
February 18, 1999
Russia reluctant to let Mir die
November 10, 1998
Russians to install 'meteorite trap' on Mir
November 10, 1998
Mir problem may delay astronaut return
May 31, 1998

NASA Shuttle-Mir Web
Russian Space Agency
Office of Space Flight - Mir
International Space Station
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