Originally created 03/24/01

Death with dignity for 15-year-old Mir orbiter



KOROLYOV, Russia -- The Mir space station's 15-year voyage ended Friday in a spectacular shower of blazing debris over the South Pacific, as computer screens in the Mission Control room went eerily blank and Russians gave the orbiter a dignified farewell.

A somber silence fell over the control room after flight controllers guided Mir to its fiery end, and pride about an operation carried out with flawless precision mixed with a sense of restrained mourning for the home Russian space experts had built.

Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov shuffled out of the room, exchanging a few handshakes. "I congratulate you on the operation, but not on the results," he said.

Mir went down without a glitch, a 143-ton, 108-foot structure disintegrating into burning scraps of metal that rained over a designated area of the "space graveyard" -- an expanse of the Pacific between Australia and Chile where Russia dumps abandoned spacecraft and satellites.

Four fragments of the station flashed above the palm trees and beaches of Fiji in white balls of fire with a swarm of smaller debris in their wake, lighting up the early evening sky for a few seconds. Four thunderous sonic booms shook the island about three minutes later.

"We didn't say anything, just looked at each other," said Viktor Konstantinov, a Mission Control expert.

"I've worked here for 30 years, I saw it all," Konstantinov said. "We consider it necessary, but inside, it felt wrong. It was a member of the family."

A display that was illuminated with rows of figures conveying technical data about Mir switched to the words: "The 15-year flight of Mir is complete."

On a huge electronic map on which Mir's route had been traced for years, three white lines followed the station's final orbits -- the last one terminating in a small dot at 40 degrees south latitude and 160 degrees west longitude, at the center of a target zone about 120 miles wide and 3,600 miles long.

Flight controllers posed for photographs in front of the display, overlooking rows of desks with computer screens that had gone blank. As the room grew deserted late Friday morning, cleaning ladies arrived to have their pictures taken before sweeping away the dust remaining from a tense overnight vigil.

Worry prevailed until the very end that the controlled crash would go wrong, plunging heavy chunks of metal on land. 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 exactly to predict the re-entry.

A Progress cargo ship docked with Mir fired the last of three thrusts at 8:07 a.m. (12:07 a.m. EST), the most crucial moment in a series of computer-driven overnight maneuvers to guide the craft down.

"Inside, my heart was sinking," said Alexander Subakov, an orientation expert who worked on Mir throughout its 15 years. "Our group was in charge of the orientation during the final impulses, so if the station fell in the wrong place, it was our heads."

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.

"It has been an exemplary operation," the head of the Russian Aerospace Agency, Yuri Koptev, said. "The world has become convinced that Russia knows not only how to build spacecraft but how to control them and how to forecast their flight."

For Russians, Mir was a symbol of space leadership, glory, and romantic dreams. All nationwide television networks broadcast the images of Mir's happier days Friday -- cosmonauts laughing and hugging, floating with loads of equipment through the station's tubular passageways, Mir itself gliding above the blue semi-sphere of Earth and its white rippling clouds.

"There were many happy moments ... but we also had very big troubles," Mission Control chief engineer, Mikhail Pronin, said.

Amid the drastic funding shortages that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse, the aging orbiter saw a long series of accidents, including fires, computer failures, and a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship.

According to trajectory projections, Mir entered the atmosphere at 8:44 a.m. (12:44 a.m. EST) and began burning and then breaking up in temperatures estimated to have reached 5,400 degrees.

Up to 28 tons of debris had been expected to survive the flames and hit the Earth's surface at 650 to 1,000 feet per second -- fast enough to smash through a block of concrete six feet thick. Boats and planes were warned to stay out of the area.

Mir was out of Russian radio range, but Mission Control announced that American radars had confirmed that the space station was on its way down on its planned flight path.

"Splashdown has occurred in that area where it was predicted. We don't have any report of any other damage at this stage," said David Templeman, executive director of Emergency Management Australia. The government body was to coordinate possible responses in case parts of Mir hit Australia.

By its final day, Mir had circled the Earth 86,331 times, and went down in a faultless descent.

"Mir left in style," Russia's ORT television network commented.



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