March 26: After 15 years in the skies, the Russian-made Mir space station finally returned to earth on March 22. Its burning remnants could be seen as they shot across the sky over the Fiji islands.
Mir means both ‘peace’ and ‘village’ in Russian. It housed 104 astronauts in its lifetime, 62 of whom were from other countries, including seven Americans. Mir’s first component was launched in 1986.
It pioneered the concept of human space flight, and showed that people could live and work in space long enough to make it seem as routine as staying on earth. International magazine Newsweek wrote a report on the Mir.
Mir’s death marks the end of a proud chapter in the Russian space programme. That is why, in Russia, about 15 people briefly demonstrated with a placard saying “Don’t Give Up the Russian Space Industry.”
But Mir had to go. The Russian government is impoverished and can not afford to keep the space station in orbit and in good condition.
Also, the Russian government is doing another collaborative project with the United States of America. They are constructing an international space station (ISS). While Mir cost the Soviets $ 4.2 billion to build; the total cost of the ISS is estimated to be $60 to $100 billion.
Russia cannot support two space stations.
But why is Mir so important? To the Russians, Mir is what landing on the moon is for the Americans. The Soviet Union comprised the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of countries like Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All of these countries were communists.
The space station was actually a complex of different modules that were put together, one by one. The first module of the station was launched in orbit on February 20, 1986. It provided five docking ports for the other modules to attach to. The modules that were attached to the docking ports over the years, could be moved around to different configurations.
Mir was the laboratory for about 23,000 experiments, ranging from growing wheat in space to studying the effects of long-term weightlessness on humans.
Cosmonauts and astronauts from dozens of nations lived and worked on the station.
Unfortunately, Mir had acquired the reputation of being decrepit, rickety and trouble-prone. It fell victim to its age and to years of inadequate maintenance.
In 1997, an oxygen-generating canister caught fire, a supply ship crashed into the station and its computer system broke down. In December that year, Mir’s earth station lost contact with the station for more than 20 hours as the batteries suddenly lost power.
All these problems were highlighted because they occurred while American astronauts were aboard the space station.
But Newsweek points out that most of Mir’s recent troubles were due to Russia’s lack of funds to maintain it, rather than from its technology or its age. After all, for 15 years, Mir withstood exposure to the sun’s rays, bitter cold and space debris.
While the Americans believe in working with the most sophisticated equipment, the Russians operate on much smaller budgets. They make do with cheaper equipment which they try to make more durable.
And yet, Mir remains one of the greatest technological accomplishments of the 20th century. It also remains a symbol of human endurance.