Mir Reflections Remembering the Russian Space Station
that Pioneered the Way For The International Space Station
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
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
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 these related
Note: Photo of Space Station Mir with Space Shuttle Atlantis
undocking (above) courtesy of NASA