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MIR Farewell

Mir Crew Bids Farewell

.c The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) - The final full-time crew of Russia's Mir space station landed 
safely in a deserted steppe in Kazakstan today, after bidding farewell to the 
rusty, leaky, 13-year-old orbiter that will be abandoned next year. 

``With grief in our soul .... we're abandoning a piece of Russia, abandoning 
something we constructed in space, and it's unclear what we'll build next,'' 
Crew commander Viktor Afanasyev said in a televised communications session 
from the Mir late Friday. 

Moments later, Afanasyev, cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev and French astronaut 
Jean-Paul Haignere climbed from the Mir's main module into a cramped Soyuz 
escape capsule and heaved the hatch shut. The Soyuz then smoothly detached 
from the Mir and headed for Earth. 

Doctors, colleagues and Haignere's astronaut wife met the crew when they 
landed, said Valery Lyndin, spokesman at Mission Control north of Moscow. 
They hit the ground smoothly about 660 miles northwest of Almaty, Kazakstan, 
and were being flown to the cosmonaut training center near Moscow. 

Mission Control will soon switch off most of the Mir's systems, including the 
central computer that keeps the station's solar panels facing the sun. Next 
spring, the Mir is scheduled to leave outer space, frying up in the 
atmosphere and scattering some remnants in the Pacific Ocean. 

The crew's departure marked a sad day for the Russian space program, which 
put the first satellite, first man and first woman in the cosmos - and now 
has no cash, no new projects entirely its own and a dim view of the future. 

The Mir's demise will mark the end of by far the world's longest-serving 
space station, which has hurtled around the earth more than 77,000 times, 
hosted more than 100 people - and survived more than 1,600 breakdowns, 
including a near-fatal collision with a supply ship in 1997. 

But the Mir is also costing the cash-poor Russian government more than it can 
handle - some estimates put it at $250 million a year - prompting the 
decision to abandon it. 

The Russians are also under pressure from NASA, the U.S. space agency, which 
has long urged Russia to bring the Mir down and concentrate its scarce 
resources on a new NASA-led international space station that is behind 
schedule because of Moscow's failure to build key components. 

Yet Russian space officials are reluctant to say goodbye to this last major 
symbol of the Soviet space era, despite its age and blemishes. They also fear 
that Russia will be left playing second fiddle to the United States on the 
new station. 

The Mir has far outlasted the three to five years it was expected to live. 
But critics say it has also outlived its usefulness. 

The state-run RKK Energia company, which owns the Mir, decided to leave the 
ship aloft for a few months after the last crew leaves, in case private 
sponsors come up with new funds to send up another. 

Few believe that money will be found - which means the government will have 
to pay for a cleanup crew to travel to the Mir in late February or March to 
safely discard it. 

The cleanup crew of two would 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 earth. 

Russia's Mir crew back on Earth

By Nikolai Pavlov

KOROLYOV, Russia, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Two Russians and a French cosmonaut 
returned to Earth on Saturday from the Mir space station, which may be dumped 
next year if Moscow fails to raise funds to keep its 13-year-old orbital 
laboratory running. 

A senior space official, reflecting a sombre mood over the crew's return, 
said that prospects of extending the life of the station, once the pride of 
Russian technology and an important symbol of Russia's superpower status, 
were minimal. 

A spokesman for Mission Control in Korolyov outside Moscow said a landing 
capsule with Russians Viktor Afanasyev, 51, Sergei Avdeyev, 43, and Frenchman 
Jean-Pierre Haignere, 51, possibly Mir's last full-time crew, touched ground 
at 0035 GMT. 

``The capsule landed softly in a planned area,'' the spokesman told 
reporters, adding that shortly before the landing Mission Control established 
radio link with the cosmonauts. He added: ``They were alright.'' 

The spokesman said the capsule landed near the town of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan, 
not too far from the Baikonur cosmodrome which Russia uses to launch all its 
manned space flights. 

He added it was immediately approached by rescue teams which would carry out 
initial medical checks on the cosmonauts and take them to Arkalyk and then on 
to Moscow, where they expected to be by lunchtime. 

In contrast with the sense of achievement over the successful completion of 
26 previous missions to Mir, Saturday's return was overshadowed by an air of 

If cash-strapped Russia fails to find funds to send new cosmonauts and 
maintain and expensive infrastructure needed to keep it running, Mir will be 

Officials have said that if money was not made available, one more team would 
visit Mir briefly to prepare it for the final journey in February or March. 
The crew would make sure the station crashes into a designated area of the 
Pacific ocean. 

``There are chances to get the money, but they are minimal,'' Boris 
Ostroumov, deputy director of the Russian Space Agency, told a news 
conference in Mission control after the landing. ``I would like to be more 
optimistic, but the situation does not allow this.'' 

Ostroumov said that in fact funding of the Mir dries out in August, but the 
agency will try to squeeze out some cash to keep it running until early 

The cosmonauts, who appeared on television link before departing from Mir, 
shared the sense of disappointment. 

``We are leaving with a bitter heart, we are leaving a little peace of 
Russia,'' Afanasyev said as he and the two others sat in front of a Russian 
flag, floating in Mir's weightlessness. 

Afanasyev and his fellow crewmen left the station in a condition in which it 
could orbit earth automatically until a decision is made on whether to bring 
it down. 

Avdeyev said the station was in good shape. ``For anyone who wishes to work 
on her we are leaving the best conditions,'' he told ground control. 

Afanasyev and Haignere had been on Mir since February 22 while Avdeyev was in 
continuous orbit for 389 days. 

``Every team is sad when it leaves but this crew is, of course, more sad 
because normally when one leaves another one follows. But this time they are 
leaving the craft empty,'' Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said on 

``On the other hand, when they return to earth they will meet their families 
and close friends, and that of course is good.'' 

Avdeyev returns to earth with the record for most time spent in space. By 
Saturday he will have clocked up a total of 742 days in orbit on his space 
missions, according to the newspaper Vechernaya Moskva. 
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