By: John Shepler
Sometime ago in the clear night sky, you might have caught a glimpse of a pinpoint of light making its way through the field of stars. It was actually a moon of our Earth, inhabited by beings like ourselves. The space station Mir, a name that could be translated as peace or community, showed itself illuminated by reflected sunlight...and then continued on about its vigil. For fifteen years, it was mankind's habitat in space, a Russian moon that invited Americans and others to join it. But that is all history now. Around midnight CST on March 23, 2001, Mir became a fiery meteor visible over Fiji, as it disintegrated in the atmosphere and plunged into the South Pacific Ocean.
I stand awed in the Mir core module, looking fore and aft through the great cylinder. It's much larger than I expected, much larger than the perspective you got from the televised pictures from space. The main living and working quarters are 43 feet long and I'd guess a dozen feet or more in diameter. It is narrower up front where most of the instruments are. But in the back there is plenty of room to float around from the dinner table to the private sleeping and writing quarters, to the toilet and shower, and up to the exercycle, all without bumping into your space companions, two to six in the craft at any given time. There's a sense of Earth-space, too. The Mir core module was built with carpeting on the "floor" and lights on the "ceiling" and the equipment oriented to give a sense of up and down, even though there is really no such thing in weightless flight. But it's easier for us Earthlings to cope when we keep a bit of the familiar directions that gravity has always set for us.
No, I'm not dreaming nor did I once hitch a ride on a Progress supply rocket. I'm right here on Terra Firma and standing, not floating, in the Mir. How? Well, actually, this part of Mir is only a couple of hours from home, resting in a special building in the Wisconsin Dells. Tommy Bartlett, famous showman and promoter, acquired the Russian Mir core module in 1997 and set it up as an exhibit to enhance his "Robot World & Exploratory." Anyone is welcome to come hear the story, view the model of the station and enter the core module to see what it was really like to be shuttled up for a tour of duty.
The Russian Space Agency built three of these core modules. One was launched in 1986 and stayed in orbit for the life of the station. It was designed for a 7 year service life, but it was home for Cosmonauts and Astronauts for over twice that long. The two others were designed as replacements. One still remains in storage in a Russian warehouse. They weigh-in at 20 tons each, yet the core module is only one of seven modules that made up the total Mir space station.
Kvant-1 is an astrophysics module that was launched and docked with the core module's aft port in 1987. It has a pressurized laboratory compartment with separate instrument and living areas, and a nonpressurized equipment compartment. Kvant-1's instruments measure electromagnetic spectra and x-ray emissions from stars. The Cosmonauts erected two towers outside to attach additional experiments.
Kvant-2 was added in 1989 and added some additional instruments, and also life support equipment to release oxygen from recycled water. It included a new shower and a large-capacity water supply.
The Kristall module, orbited in 1990, was a proto-factory for testing methods to develop biological and materials production technologies in space. Some medicines and very pure crystals are easier to form when there is no gravity tugging and separating the mixtures. Kristall is now attached to a special Docking Module which was installed by Shuttle Astronauts in 1995 and allows the Space Shuttle to dock at Mir without interfering with the station's solar arrays.
The Priroda Remote Sensing module was added in 1996 and had infrared radiometers, radar and spectrometers which were used to study the Earth's atmosphere, especially ozone and aerosols.
The final module was the Spektr Remote Sensing Payload. It has instruments to study particles in low Earth orbit. This module was damaged in the collision with the supply ship and was closed up pending final repairs that were never finally completed.
Mir couldn't simply remain in its assigned orbit for the next hundred years, a tribute to Russian space accomplishment, as many wished. The vacuum in low Earth orbit isn't perfect, and the remaining particles of the atmosphere apply a small but steady friction that slowed the station every day. Left alone, it would eventually contact enough air to cause it to leave orbit and come crashing down...who knows where. That's too dangerous. The only real options were to deliberately abandon ship and point it into the ocean, or to strap booster rockets to the side and push it to a higher orbit in order to buy more time.
The decision was made to let Mir burn up rather than invest in preservation. That made some sense in bringing the current space station era to an end in favor of putting all our effort toward the much larger International Space Station that is now operational with an American and Russian crew, and soon, researchers from other countries, too. But it also seemed like such a waste, in light of the one and a half billion dollars invested in getting Mir up there and running all these years, and the opportunity to have an additional facility available for whomever might want to use it some day.
Unfortunately, despite valiant efforts to find sponsors to keep Mir alive, the most pragmatic decision was the one that was made. With sadness in the hearts of many Russians who are justifiably proud of their leadership in setting the basic design of modern space stations and their pioneering efforts in long duration space flight, the American astronauts who were privileged to serve aboard Mir, and the millions of space enthusiasts worldwide, the retro-rockets were fired and Mir was guided into a spectacular re-entry out of harm's way. It's place in history is assured, along with Sputnik, Skylab, and the many pioneering spacecraft that have brought us to this threshold of permanent life in outer space.
Books of Interest:
Off the Planet, Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir by Jerry M. Linenger
Living in Space: A Handbook for Work & Exploration Stations beyond the Earth's Atmosphereby G. Harry Stine. Living in Space explains the technology necessary for staying alive, healthy, and happy in space; basic problems of working in space, and much more.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
Note: Photo of Space Station Mir with Space Shuttle Atlantis undocking (above) courtesy of NASA
Tommy Bartlett's Robot World & Exploratory - Visitor information for those who wish to see the Mir core module on display in the Wisconsin Dells.
Copyright 1998 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: August 30, 1998 as part of A Positive Light