The Mir Ends it's Journey

Friday, March 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NADI, Fiji (AP) -The Mir space station finished its 15 year voyage Friday in a shower of fireballs, its wreckage streaking through the atmosphere and plunging into a watery grave in the South Pacific.
On the other side of the globe, Russian controllers shook hands and congratulated each other on the successful demise of the space station that had been the glory of their space program. Russian and Australian officials said the downing of the aging Mir went perfectly, hitting within an ocean target area hundreds of miles from any land.
``The event is over and no one is crying,'' said Yuri Koptev at Russian Mission Control outside Moscow.
Four fragments from the disintegrating station flashed above the palm trees and beaches of Fiji like white balls of fire, with a swarm of smaller debris in their wake. The debris illuminated the early evening sky for about eight seconds, then four thunderous sonic booms shook the island about three minutes later.
``It was like someone shining a spotlight in your eyes, it was really intense,'' said AP Photographer Rob Griffith, who watched the Mir roar overhead. ``It was blinding bright.''
Stunned and thrilled residents watched, with adults and children running along beaches, trying to keep the cosmic fireworks in sight. Some families had camped out on beaches, hoping for a glimpse of Mir.
Neli Vuatalevu, a pilot flying alone above Nadi, said he watched as the station disintegrated in a shower of fireballs.
``It was spectacular. The best fireworks I've ever seen. I don't think I'll see anything like it again in my life,'' said 29-year-old Vuatalevu. ``It was amazing to see it disintegrate in mid air.''
Mir was set onto its fiery downfall after midnight Eastern time, when Mission Control fired engines on a cargo ship docked to Mir to brake the station's orbit and send it hurtling into the atmosphere.
Most of the 143-ton station disintegrated. The remains slammed into the Pacific about 30 minutes later, raining down over an area called the ``cosmic graveyard,'' where Russia dumps derelict spacecraft and satellites.
Russian authorities said it hit an area centered about 1,800 miles east of Wellington, New Zealand, within a target zone 120 miles wide by 3,600 miles long between New Zealand and Chile.
Australian and New Zealand emergency officials who monitored the descent said the debris hit the target area, with debris falling across a wide area. Defense and civil defense organizations were on alert across the region in case the controlled crash went wrong, plunging wreckage down on land.
Still, the Mir entered the Earth's atmosphere at a steeper angle than planned because the cargo ship's engines had to fire more intensely to burn up fuel. That changed the trajectory of the station slightly and resulted in the debris falling into a swath of the Pacific that was approximately 900 miles northwest of the site that had been pinpointed, but still within the target zone.
Uncertainty prevailed until the very end about just where heavy chunks of metal from Mir, some weighing up to 1,800 pounds, would fall. Russian officials had insisted they could carry out a safe descent. But the station was by far the heaviest spacecraft ever dumped, and its size and shape made it difficult to exactly predict the re-entry.
The safe downing was a relief to nations that had been in its flight path like Japan, where many worried that a mishap could bring wreckage plummeting into populated areas.
``We feel very relieved, and it's thanks to Russia's planning and technology,'' said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The station passed over Japan about an hour before hitting the water.
Russian space officials exulted over the crash, even though it meant the end of one of the country's greatest achievements in space, a decision opposed by some Russians.
``It has been an exemplary operation, and our experts have not made a mistake in any single step, not in a millimeter,'' said Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian Aerospace agency.
``Russia will remain a great space power.''
By its final day, the Mir had circled the Earth 86,331 times. The station was launched in 1986 by the Soviet Union, a mark of immense pride. But in its latter years, it came to symbolize Russia's fading technological prowess. The space program's funding experienced drastic funding cuts, and the orbiter saw a long series of accidents including a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship.
In Moscow, the argument over whether the Mir should have been dumped continued even after the station was history.
``Every serious project has its life cycle. This is a logical end of a very long and complex project,'' Koptev said.
But Yuri Semyonov, head of the company that constructed the Mir, said it could have been kept going.
``Of course there must be an end. I just feel sorry that we hastened it. The station could work for another two or three years but we lack the funds,'' he said.
For Fiji, one of the smallest, most remote nations in the world, it was an incredible show that stunned people across the chain of islands.
``It was very bright, much, much brighter than what we are used to in terms of seeing aircraft flying overhead,'' said Fiji's Director of Meteorology, Rajenda Prasad, who was playing rugby with friends.
A group of Western and Russian space buffs, who chartered two planes to chase the Mir and record its final moments, missed the show. The expedition was patrolling an area to the east, never dreaming Mir would pass over the spot where they lived for the past week.
The group, which included four Russian cosmonauts who served on Mir, reported glimpsing ``a small dot'' from one plane. Deeply disappointed, the group consoled themselves with champagne as they headed back to Fiji.