Mir destroyed in fiery descent
NADI, Fiji (CNN) -- The Russian space station Mir broke up in the atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Friday, ending its reign as the heaviest artificial object to orbit Earth.
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, an uninhabited expanse between New Zealand and Chile.
Russian Mission Control had 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.
A CNN correspondent on the island of Fiji spotted streaking debris and heard resulting sonic booms soon after Mir began its descent.
The fallout was "making a huge golden trail through the sky. We're just in awe. It's a collection of bright golden lights tearing across the sky," said Hugh Williams.
"Perhaps five large fragments fell apart into several more fragments in front of my eyes," he added. "The speed and the size of the object was amazing, like something out of a science fiction movie."
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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