space station Mir became a legend in its own time reflecting Russia’s
past space glories and her future as a leader in space.
The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times
its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it
into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors.
It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer
space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments
of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires,
a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control
Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential
future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest
stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia
and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.
Mir did all of that and like most legends was controversial and paradoxical.
At different times and by different people, Mir was called both "venerable"
and "derelict." It was also "robust," "accident-prone,"
and "a marvel," as well as "a lemon."
For Russians, the very name "Mir" held meaning, feeling,
and history. Mir translates into English as "world," "peace,"
and "village," but a single-word translation misses its full
significance. Historically, after the Edict of Emancipation in 1861,
the word "mir" referred to a Russian peasant community that
owned its own land. A system of state-owned collective farms replaced
the mir after the Russian revolution of 1917.
an essay by Frank Culbertson, Shuttle-Mir Program Manager, on the meanings
of "Mir: What’s in a Name?"
As with most legends, Mir was literally beyond the reach of most men
and women, but it could be seen by many as a bright light arcing across
the night sky. Mir undoubtedly provoked many thoughts around the globe
about who we—as a human race—are and where we are going.
The cosmonauts and astronauts who were fortunate enough to travel to
Mir were always impressed by its appearance. Regardless, Mir remained
difficult to describe. Someone once called Mir a 100-ton Tinker Toy,
a term that recalled Mir’s construction. Adding modules over the years,
and then sometimes rearranging them, the Russians had built the strangest,
biggest structure ever seen in outer space. Traveling at an average
speed of 17,885 mph, the space station orbited about 250 miles above
the Earth. Mir was both great and graceful—and incongruous and awkward—all
at the same time.
In outward appearance, Mir has also been compared to a dragonfly with
its wings outstretched, and to a hedgehog whose spines could pierce
a spacewalker’s suit. NASA-4 Mir Astronaut Jerry Linenger compared Mir
to "six school buses all hooked together. It was as if four of
the buses were driven into a four-way intersection at the same time.
They collided and became attached. All at right angles to each other,
these four buses made up the four Mir science modules. … Priroda and
Spektr were relatively new additions … and looked it—each sporting shiny
gold foil, bleached-white solar blankets, and unmarred thruster pods.
Kvant-2 and Kristall … showed their age. Solar blankets were yellowed
… and looked as drab as a Moscow winter and were pockmarked with raggedy
holes, the result of losing battles with micrometeorite and debris strikes
over the years."
On the inside, Mir often surprised people, too, even when they thought
they were ready for the view. By the time Americans arrived on Mir—nearly
a decade into its life—the station had become cluttered with used-up
and broken equipment and floating bags of trash. During Mir’s lifetime,
no adequate remedy was ever developed to deal with the stowage situation.
Mir looked like a metal rabbit warren, or, as Mike Foale put it, "a
bit like a frat house, but more organized and better looked after."
Still, Mir was home and shelter to its crews, and how it looked to
them depended on their perspectives and situations. The ivory-like controls
of the Base Block reminded David Wolf of classic science-fiction stories,
such as The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. After a fly-around in
the cramped Soyuz capsule, Jerry Linenger wrote: "Looking into
the station I could see a lone ray of light shining through the port
widow and outlining the dining table. We had left some food out for
dinner. It was the only time during my stay in space that Mir looked
warm, inviting, and spacious. It reminded me of opening the door to
a summer cottage that been boarded up for the winter, looking inside,
and seeing familiar surroundings."
Mir set every record in long-duration spaceflight. Physician Valeri
Polyakov lived aboard Mir for a single, continuous-orbit stay of 437
days, 17 hours and 38 minutes. He completed his stay in 1995 as American
Norm Thagard began his Mir residency. Polyakov's experiences contributed
greatly to the biomedical studies of long-term human spaceflight conducted
by the Institute of Biomedical Problems, where he served as Deputy Director.
Combined with an earlier Mir expedition flight, the Russian cosmonaut
spent a total 678 days, 16 hours and 33 minutes on the Russian space
station. However, his achievement for total time in space was surpassed
in 1999 by Sergei Avdeyev who endured a total 747 days, 14 hours and
12 minutes, during three space missions. During Shuttle-Mir, Shannon
Lucid set the space endurance record for women in 1996 when she spent
188 days, 4 hours and 00 minutes in orbit.
Just as "mir"—the word—had many meanings for Russians, Mir—the
place—provoked many different feelings. In February 1995, Russian cosmonaut
Vladimir Titov flew aboard the "near Mir" flight, STS-63,
when the Shuttle rendezvoused with Mir. Six years earlier, Titov had
spent a year aboard Mir as an expedition member, when Mir consisted
of only the Base Block, the two Kvant modules, a Soyuz, and a Progress
spacecraft. About seeing Mir again, Titov said, "It was very wonderful,
a wonderful view." STS-63 did not dock, but Titov visited Mir again
as a crewmember of STS-86.
Alas, the sturdy Mir was built on a sinking foundation. Without repeated
boostings, all things in low Earth orbit must eventually come down.
With the new International Space Station requiring much of the Russian
space program’s attention and financing, the Mir Space Station was doomed
to be deorbited. A strong effort rallied in Russia to keep Mir aloft;
and at one point, Russian State Duma representatives were calling for
the firing of Yuri Koptev from his post as the head of Russia’s aerospace
agency. However, on December 30, 2000, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail
Kasyanov signed a resolution calling for Mir to be sunk into the ocean,
early in 2001.
Concerns circled the globe about Mir crashing into populated areas.
Mir’s path crossed over nearly every city on Earth. Its orbits tracked
over everything between 51 degrees North and South latitude, roughly
within the limits of the Aleutian Islands to the north and the southern
Andes Mountains to the south. Pieces of previous large spacecraft had
landed in Canada, Australia, and southern South America, albeit fortunately
without any damages or casualties.
For Mir, Russia acquired insurance in the event that its deorbit caused
some physical damage. Japan kept a close watch because the final orbit
would bring the Mir over the island nation. The U.S. government provided
Russia with tracking and trajectory data, atmospheric conditions, and
even solar activity, which can cause the Earth’s atmosphere to expand
farther into space. Although there was considerable certainty that debris
could be limited to falling in the ocean, Yuri Semenov, RSC Energia
President, was quoted as saying, "We don’t have a 100-percent safety
After more than 86,000 total orbits, Mir re-entered Earth’s atmosphere
on Friday, March 23, 2001, at 9 a.m. Moscow time. The 134-ton space
structure broke up over the southern Pacific Ocean. Some of its larger
pieces blazed harmlessly into the sea, about 1,800 miles east of New
Zealand. Observers in Fiji reported spectacular gold- and white-streaming
lights. An amazing saga and a highly successful program finally had
come to a watery end.
Anatoly Solovyev had lived a total of 651 days on Mir and served as
Mir-24 commander for Americans Mike Foale and David Wolf. He was quoted
in Star City as saying, "I am especially sad these days. An entire
era of our Soviet space program is ending, into which we invested not
only our money but, what is more important, our intellectual potential."
The Russians’ investment began when a Soviet Proton launcher boosted
Mir’s Base Block (core module) into orbit on February 20, 1986. This
module resembled the existing Salyut-7 space station, but Mir’s design
called for expansion through the addition of future modules. Mir’s first
crew arrived in mid-March 1986, and the inaugural crew of Leonid Kizim
and Vladimir Solovyev stayed aboard until May 5, 1986. This Solovyev
would later become the Russian cochair of the Flight Operations Working
Group for the Shuttle-Mir Program. And it was he who took charge of
the Moscow Mission Control Center immediately after the Progress resupply
vehicle collided with Mir, during NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale’s
In 1987, the Soviets added Mir’s first expansion module, Kvant-1, and
had the world’s first modular space station. They still needed a more
versatile way of transporting crews and equipment to and from Mir—something
like the American Space Shuttle. In 1988, the Soviets launched the Buran,
a winged, reusable space vehicle and a close copy of the U.S. Shuttle.
Its first flight was near perfect. However, at this point in history,
the Soviet Union was crumbling. No further Buran flights were attempted;
four planned orbiters remained unfinished.
The Soyuz-TM vehicle and Progress-M resupply (cargo) vehicle became
the transports of crews and supplies to the Mir. The Kvant-1 featured
a docking port to accommodate the arrival of these spacecraft. The system
worked well as the Russian space station was unoccupied on only five
brief occasions until its deorbit on March 23, 2001. During its existence,
the station had remained almost continuously occupied for nine years.
Mir continued to expand during the next years with the additions of
modules for research and residence. Kvant-2 arrived in November 1989
with an airlock that allowed crewmembers access to the outside of the
complex for extravehicular activities. Kristall, launched at the end
of May 1990, housed Earth observation instruments and was used for semiconductor
and biological experiments. Five years later, Spektr, a remote-sensing
module for geophysical sciences, was added to the Mir.
On June 29, 1995, U.S. Space Shuttles began docking with the Russian
space station. Before this first docking, the Mir-19 crew used the Lyappa
manipulator arm to relocate the Kristall, thus allowing ample clearance
for Atlantis. In November 1995, a new docking module arrived
via STS-74 and was attached to the Kristall to provide means for future
dockings without interference. The next year, on April 23, 1996, the
final module, the Priroda, was added to the Mir.
The complex retained a docked Soyuz-TM vehicle at all times as this
spacecraft served as the crew’s "lifeboat." The vehicle carried
a maximum of three persons, took two to three days to reach its destination,
and could remain docked with the Mir for approximately 200 days before
its orbital lifetime limit expired.
The resident Soyuz was used for an occasional, scheduled "fly-around"
of the T-shaped Mir, but crews primarily ventured outside for extravehicular
activities (EVAs). During Mir’s lifetime, crewmembers spent more than
325 hours as part of 75 planned spacewalks to conduct research and repairs
on the exterior of the structure. Additional hours were spent during
three intravehicular walks inside the unpressurized Spektr module. Participants
in the Mir EVAs included 29 Russian cosmonauts, 3 U.S. astronauts, 2
French astronauts, and 1 European Space Agency astronaut who was a citizen
of Germany. Cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev donned the Russian Orlan spacesuit
for 16 spacewalks for a total time of 77 hours, 46 minutes—more EVA
time than any other spacewalker in the world.
After the Russian space station moved into its second decade, the Mir
became notorious as an accident-prone spacecraft, even as it remained
unparalleled in continuous service. A 15-minute fire in an oxygen-generating
device imperiled the station in February 1997. Failures of the Elektron
electrolysis oxygen-enerating units and problems with attitude and environmental
controls often seemed to alternate with computer malfunctions and power
outages. The June 1997 collision with the Progress supply vehicle breached
the integrity of the Spektr’s hull and rendered that module uninhabitable.
But, Mir remained; and its space explorers endured. Over its lifetime,
the space station hosted 125 cosmonauts and astronauts from 12 different
nations. It supported 17 space expeditions, including 28 long-term crews.
Its residents arrived via the 31 spacecraft that docked with Mir; nine
of the dockings involved the Space Shuttle. Additionally, 64 uncrewed
cargo vessels ferried supplies and equipment periodically to Mir. And,
it served as a floating laboratory for 23,000 scientific and medical
Although Mir was gone by early 2001 and the International Space Station
(ISS) was growing rapidly in orbit, the U.S. and Russia were still using
spacecraft as statecraft. On March 23—the same day as Mir’s deorbit—Russia
expelled four U.S. diplomats and said it would expel 46 more, in retaliation
for the American expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats for espionage-like
activities. It wasn’t the Cold War, all over again, but international
tensions were certainly continuing, and the need remained for a worthy
program for U.S. and Russian cooperation.
One could still apply to the ISS the same hopes that Shuttle Commander
Charlie Precourt had held for it during Shuttle-Mir. Precourt had predicted
that the ISS would "provide the psychological impetus for politicians
to force themselves to find an agreement to disputes that otherwise
they wouldn’t—because they’ll all look up there and say, ‘Well, we have
an investment in that, too. We have to keep this relationship going
in a proper direction.’" Although the U.S.-Russian relationship
was still going in the "proper direction," toward continued
cooperation in space, the proper use and the funding of ISS were still
in question. NASA cost overruns for the ISS clouded the program’s future,
and Russia’s foreign department was threatening to reduce its participation
in the ISS. To make the situation even more complicated, the ISS partner
nations were discussing whether Russia should launch a wealthy, American
"space tourist" to the space station.
Notwithstanding all the diplomatic wrangling, Mir’s demise also coincided
neatly with the successful finish to the first U.S.-Russian expedition
to the ISS. On March 22, 2001, Expedition One crewmembers Sergei Krikalev,
Yuri Gidzenko, and Commander William Shepherd returned to the Johnson
Space Center in Houston. They received a ride from STS-102 Shuttle Commander
James Wetherbee and a crew that included former Mir resident Andy Thomas.
STS-102 had ferried the Expedition Two crew of James Voss, Susan Helms,
and Commander Yury Usachev to the station.
Just as the ISS itself grew out of the lessons of Mir, many of the
principal people in the ISS Program drew from their experiences during
the Shuttle-Mir Program. And, in Houston and in Moscow, American and
Russian managers, engineers and technicians who had worked in the Shuttle-Mir
Program were working to make the ISS a success.
The International Space Station was growing, but the memories of Mir
refused to fade. Indeed, people had anticipated its demise for long
enough that, even before it fell, it had entered nostalgia. In a 1998
interview, Vladimir Semyachkin reflected on Mir. He had developed the
motion control systems and navigation systems for all vehicles and stations
that were produced and launched into space by RSC Energia. Semyachkin,
as much as anyone, had wrestled with Mir’s problems. He said:
"It’s a shame…. Our child, who we gave birth to so many years
ago, … we’re going to have to put it to sleep. But, on the other hand,
we understand that sometimes there’s nothing to be done…. One cannot
sit, as it were, on two chairs at the same time. Nevertheless, despite
this sorrow with … regard to Mir, we nonetheless do look forward to
the future with a great deal of hope."
Diagrams of the Mir Space Station
on a video tour of Mir with Shannon Lucid
animation video of the Mir Space Station deorbit and reentry