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Mir Crew Prepares To Head Home

.c The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) - On a sad day for the Russian space program, the crew of the Mir 
space station prepared today to head back to Earth and leave the orbiter 
unmanned in preparations for its abandonment next year. 

``The mood here is businesslike, but gloomy,'' said Valery Lyndin, the 
spokesman for the Mission Control center in the town of Korolyov near Moscow. 

Russian cosmonauts Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev, along with French 
astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere, are scheduled to move from the station to the 
Soyuz escape capsule later today. 

They are to depart from the station at 1:14 a.m. local time Saturday and land 
about three hours later in a deserted steppe in the former Soviet republic of 

The decision to abandon the 13-year-old Mir, by far the world's 
longest-serving space station, came after the cash-strapped government 
decided to stop financing its operation and all attempts to attract private 
funds failed. 

In a last-ditch effort to raise cash, the state-run RKK Energia company that 
owns the Mir, decided to postpone discarding the ship for good until early 
next year. 

Few believe that money will be found, meaning that the government will have 
to pay for a final mission to the Mir in late February or March to safely 
discard it. 

If that happens, a crew of two will spend about a month aboard the station, 
gradually lowering its orbit. Right after the cosmonauts leave, ground 
controllers will send the 140-ton station to burn up in the atmosphere, with 
any surviving fragments falling into the Pacific Ocean. 

Mission Control has dismissed fears that the deserted Mir may spin out of 
control and crash on land. ``The Mir's command system is reliably backed up 
to guarantee it from failure,'' Lyndin said. 

Shortly after the crew leaves, Mission Control will switch off most of the 
Mir's systems, including the central computer that keeps the station's solar 
panels facing the sun. 

However, there will be enough energy left to restart the computer, Lyndin 
said. The station's climate control system will keep the station from 
freezing, he added. 

At the same time, another official warned that no funds have been earmarked 
yet to build the two booster rockets necessary to take the final crew to the 
Mir and deliver a cargo ship that would push the station into the atmosphere. 

``There is still no money for that, and Energia is seriously concerned 
because it bears responsibility for the safe discarding of the station,'' 
said Yuri Grigoryev, Energia's deputy chief, according to the ITAR-Tass news 

The Mir has had a patchy safety record that includes a fire, a near-fatal 
collision with a cargo ship and numerous computer breakdowns, but it has been 
running relatively smoothly in recent months. 

The U.S. space agency NASA has long urged Russia to bring the Mir down and 
concentrate its scarce resources on a new international space station that is 
behind schedule because of Moscow's failure to build key components. 

But Russian space officials and cosmonauts have been reluctant to part with 
the Mir, the last symbol of the nation's once-glorious space program. 

They fear that without a space project of its own, Russia will be left 
playing second fiddle to the United States in the new station. 

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