Originally created 02/12/99

Lack of money might still doom Mir



MOSCOW -- Russia's Mir space station might be discarded as early as August because investors who were supposedly planning to fund it have backed out, the nation's space chief said today.

The RKK Energia company, which built and runs the 13-year old station, said in December that it had found a private sponsor to keep Mir in orbit for another three years. The station was scheduled to be scrapped in June.

"It was just wishful thinking," Space Agency director Yuri Koptev said of Energia's statement. "They have indeed carried out serious work with an investor who had the money. But the investor has some problems."

Shutting down Mir is favored by NASA, which wants Moscow to forget about Mir and dedicate its meager resources to the international space station. The 16-nation project is a year behind schedule because Russia didn't build an early component on time. The station's first elements were launched late last year.

Last month, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov decreed that Energia could keep the Mir in operation for another three years, but only if private investors paid the station's yearly expenses of up to $250 million.

Primakov's decision was praised by Russia's space officials, who had insisted that the much-loved Mir stay in orbit, even though the government didn't have enough money to pay for it.

But with the loss of the mysterious private investor, the station once again looks as if it will be abandoned this summer.

"If no investor is found, we will be forced to make the tough decision to discard Mir in August or September," Koptev said at a news conference following a Cabinet session in which this year's space program was discussed.

He said space officials would start planning to abandon Mir if no money is found by April.

Koptev refused to name prospective investors, but denied Russian media reports that they could be Chinese.

"China has been energetically developing its own space program and promised to put its first astronaut in orbit by Oct. 1 this year," he said. "If they had been interested in flying on our station, they would have done it a long time ago."

Two Chinese pilots have undergone preparation at Russia's cosmonaut training center, but cooperation stopped there. "We haven't heard from them since then," Koptev said.