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Mir crew prepares to end Russia's space mission

By Elizabeth Piper

MOSCOW, Aug 26 (Reuters) - The crew on board Russia's Mir space station were 
making last minute preparations on Thursday to end its last mission and leave 
the troubled craft to fly unmanned before it plunges to earth next year. 

A spokeswoman at Mission Control said the Russian-French three-man crew were 
readying themselves for Saturday's departure and were making final checks of 
the equipment which will keep the orbiting laboratory in space for half a 

``Everything is alright up there, preparations are underway for the 
landing,'' Irina Manshilina said by telephone from Mission Control in the 
space city of Korolyov outside Moscow. 

She said the crew, Russians Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, and 
Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere, were feeling alright about ending their 
mission on Mir, which will be retired if vital funds are not found. 

Many space experts mourn the end of Russia's independent space programme -- 
whose final chapter is likely in February or March 2000 when a final crew 
will be sent briefly to prepare to push Mir into a lower orbit and burn-out 
in Earth's atmosphere. 

Avdeyev returns to earth with the record for most time spent in space. By 
Saturday he will have clocked up an overall 742 days of flight in orbit, 
newspaper Vechernaya Moskva said. 

Manshilina said Avdeyev and the crew has installed and tested a vital back-up 
navigation system designed to keep the unmanned station from crashing down to 
earth -- a fear which troubles some astronauts familiar with the craft. 

Mir, which was originally built to last for five years, has been left 
unmanned on two occasions, once for half a year after the first crew left in 

But like an old car, it has suffered an increasing number of problems as it 
ages. Air supply problems, leaks and a collision with a cargo craft in 1997 
have all taken its toll on the craft. 

Workers at Korolyov and some space experts say Mir could stay in orbit for at 
least a further two or three years and have criticised the government for 
cutting funding to Mir. 

But Russia's cash-strapped government has also pledged to finance its 
obligations to the new International Space Station. 

The United States, irritated by Russia's attempts to prolong Mir's space 
life, has asked Moscow to focus its meagre funds on the International Space 
Station -- already more than a year behind schedule because of Russian 

Mir's owner, the Energiya space corporation, has searched for extra funds but 
has been embarrassed by several financial flops. It was cautious to embrace a 
film director's recent offer to pay for the rights to film on the space craft 
after its last sponsor failed to come up with a $100 million donation. 

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