Russians Find Pride, and Regret, in Mir's Splashdown
By PATRICK E. TYLER
Published: March 24, 2001
KOROLYOV, Russia, March 23 — For all the anxieties it caused during its 86,330 laps around the planet, Russia's Mir space station executed its final program for self-destruction with a series of crisp electronic salutes that sent the 134-ton leviathan streaking out of orbit like a midday meteor shower over the South Pacific.
Mikhail L. Pronin, the chief engineer of the Russian space agency who persevered through all 5,511 of Mir's good and bad days in space, struggled with his emotions as the last video pictures from Mir faded to black and a huge control room display recorded its splashdown today at 9 a.m. Moscow time (1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time). At first, he feigned Russian stoicism, saying that all had gone well and that the situation was "normal." Then he ran for the men's room to have a cigarette.
When he emerged, he thumped his chest and declared in English, "I am feel proud!"
In the Fiji Islands, the view of a half-dozen flaming chunks of Mir as they cut vapor trails across a blue and white canopy of sky over the tropics delighted thousands of onlookers before what was left of Mir crashed harmlessly into stormy waters 1,800 miles east of New Zealand.
At Mission Control here just outside Moscow, there were neither cheers nor tears among flight controllers as the 15-year-old laboratory that spawned thousands of useful scientific advances — as well as a number of life-threatening malfunctions — was shredded by a fiery re-entry.
A woman's voice came over the loudspeaker and declared in English: "Mir has completed its triumphant mission. It was unprecedented in the history of space research."
The director of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Koptev, told reporters, "Mir proved Russia can not only build things, but it can operate them, too," and, "Russia is and will remain a space power."
But many Russian space pioneers, who in Mir's last hours paced the long corridors of this space complex built by the Soviet Union in the era of superpower competition, saw Mir's demise as a symbol of lost glory and of Russia's more modest horizons in space.
Aleksandr I. Lazutkin, who spent six months aboard Mir in 1997, when it was damaged by a collision with its cargo ship, betrayed the bitterness that many Russian astronauts felt over the loss of national prestige. "The country has lost a place in space, and I cannot say that any of my colleagues are happy about the de-orbiting," Mr. Lazutkin said.
Mr. Lazutkin seemed obsessed by comparisons of what it would have cost to save Mir and money that Russia spent on less noble pursuits like repairing the damage from tank fire on the Russian White House after the crisis in 1993, when President Boris N. Yeltsin faced down hard- line opponents.
Still, he said: "Our country made a great contribution in space, and we are not ashamed. But now our place will be a little smaller, and we have lost our independence."
Russian space officials said they remained committed to a new era of cooperative space research aboard the International Space Station. Russia will share that venture with the United States and 14 other nations.
The fall from space today was for many a disquieting event, because Mir, for better or worse, was a distinctly Russian achievement.
Mr. Koptev pointed out that Russia had spent a total of $4.2 billion on the Mir project. "Given the state of the station," he said, "we were obliged to do this. One should not see it in purely emotional terms."
The controlled descent from the 18,000-miles-an-hour orbital speed was managed with remarkable precision after months of international fretting that a miscue might spew molten parts like a lethal spray of buckshot across Japan, Australia or Chile.
Five hours before the descent, controllers had watched breathlessly as telemetry showed that an on-board program coded for the burial sequence had turned on the engines of the unmanned supply ship docked with Mir for a 14-minute burn, the first of three, that commenced the final slide.
When the firing sequence ended, telemetry showed that it had delivered the precise amount of retro thrust to slow the station. The first burn occurred as Mir passed over the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas. It ended as the station flew over Beijing and headed out over the Yellow Sea.
Mr. Pronin, a barrel-chested man who has worked on Mir since it was launched on Feb. 20, 1986, showed an intense determination to guide the station to a dignified burial.
"We are in a working mood," he said several times. "Tomorrow there will be time for reminiscences."
The first burn was at 3:30 and the second at 5, leading up to a final firing that used the main engine of the Progress supply ship at 8:07 as Mir flew from the Mediterranean up over Manchuria. The last video feed sent back pictures of the Caspian Sea area all the way to the Baikonur space dome, from which Mir was blasted into orbit and which is now part of Kazakhstan.
For the engineers here, the most frustrating moments were those at the end. As Mir sank, passing 100 miles over Japan and plunging into the atmosphere at 8:45, the station passed out of radio range. Russia maintains no radar stations in the Pacific that could track the final descent and breakup.
In the end, it was an American station in the Pacific that flashed a message to Moscow confirming that Mir was in a downward trajectory, headed for its target, drawn as a box the size of Alaska on control screens here.
When it was all over, Mr. Koptev said Russia knew that Mir had landed because an hour had passed since it had entered the atmosphere, and with diplomats from dozens of countries present at the space center, "no one is yelling" that Mir had hit their territory.