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Feb. 17, 2000

      Mir's future revolves around intrigue, confusion

      By Tom Breen

      CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Will the currently unmanned Russian space
station Mir
      be kept alive amid a new, private multimillion dollar effort to
save it?

      Or, like an old soldier, will the 14-year-old orbiting laboratory
that witnessed so
      many international space triumphs just fade away?

      On one side of this peculiar space saga are a handful of private
investors, including at
      least two rich Americans.

      They want to turn Mir into a commercial platform that could do
space business,
      accommodate millionaire tourists on vacation flings, or even serve

as a moviemaking

      On another side are perplexed and angry U.S. officials.

      They say the Russian government promised to deorbit Mir to focus
on the evolving
      International Space Station of which Russia is a key player, along

with the United

      And in the middle are Russian government officials who claim they
told the United
      States they would deorbit Mir only if private funding did not

      As in most space dealings between the United States and Russia,
the Mir issue is
      shrouded in confusion, intrigue and wacky international politics.

      "We're not going against U.S. policy; we're just trying to start a

commercial venture
      on a wonderful, proven space station,'' 45-year-old American
businessman Jeff
      Manber said from Alexandria, Va.

      "Also, you can't say on the one hand the Russian government has no

money for the
      International Space Station and then reject a plan that would put
money into the
      Russian economy,'' Manber added.

      Manber is president of MirCorp Ltd., a private firm that is
overseeing commercial
      investments in the Russian station. MirCorp will operate from
Bermuda and
      Amsterdam to avoid entanglements with the American government.

      The Russian government still owns Mir, but MirCorp will attempt to

operate the
      station through a leasing agreement.

      Manber is well-positioned to deal with the Russians after serving
as the U.S.
      representative for the legendary Russian space company RSC
Energia. Energia
      President and General Designer Yuri Semenov is a member of the
MirCorp board.

      Although it is hard to figure out what's private and what isn't in

the haze of Russia's
      economic problems, Energia now claims to be independent, without
direct ties to the

      "I spent many years, in a small way, helping privatize Energia,''
said Manber, who
      made a name for himself on Wall Street in the 1980s as a
space-business financier.

      But Manber is not one of the rich Americans providing the initial
money in the bid to
      keep Mir going.

      Most of it, about $20 million, is coming from telecommunications
entrepreneur Walt
      Anderson of Washington. Anderson made much of his fortune buying
and selling
      telecommunications companies after the breakup of AT&T.

      In addition to his Mir investement, Anderson has another interest
in the space
      business as director of Rotary Rocket Co. of Redwood City, Calif.,

one of many
      companies trying to develop a new launch vehicle to send people
into space.

      Another American, telecommunications executive Chirinjeev Kathuria

of Chicago,
      announced Wednesday  in London that he would become a minority
shareholder in
      MirCorp but did not disclose the amount of his investment.

      In addition to the announcement that Chicago's Kathuria had come
on board as an
      investor, MirCorp announced in London on Wednesday  that Andrew
Eddy had
      joined the operation as senior vice president of business

      Eddy comes to MirCorp from the Canadian Space Agency, where he was

      involved in the International Space Station.

      Until late last year, the assumption was the Russian government
would deorbit Mir
      this year, probably by August. But in the fall and winter of 1999,

private investors
      began approaching the Russian government about trying to keep Mir
alive - with
      private money.

      One of the people approaching the Russian government was Rick
      president of a nonprofit space-activist group called the Space
Frontier Foundation of
      New York City.

      "I knew Rick and respected him, but I still didn't think there was

any "there' there,''
      Manber said. "I continued to listen and wanted to hear more.''

      The next step was for Tumlinson to introduce Manber to Anderson,
who runs his
      investments from a holding company in the British Virgin Islands,
Gold & Appel.
      Tumlinson serves as a space adviser to Anderson.

      Anderson "told me he would like to buy Mir,'' Manber said. "I told

him, "You can't
      buy Mir,' it belongs to the Russian government. You can't buy Mir
any more than
      you can buy Russian oilfields. But what struck me after talking to

Anderson was that
      he was serious and was willing to work within the framework of

      At that point, in November, Manber was instrumental in starting
talks between
      Anderson and Energia.

      After another month of talks, Anderson's Gold & Appel agreed early

this year to
      funnel about $20 million through the newly set up MirCorp to
Energia to attempt to
      keep Mir alive. No matter what happens, Energia gets to keep the
money, Manber

      If the project succeeds, Manber added that he, Anderson, Kathuria
and Energia
      officials "are hoping to make some money, naturally,'' mostly from

rich tourists at the

      That is the private investors' side of the story.

      Here is the U.S. government side.

      For years, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin has proclaimed that the
Russians must
      abandon Mir and focus on the International Space Station if they
want to continue on
      the project.

      Goldin has made these statements amid repeated Russian delays on
their work on
      the station, especially the key Service Module that was supposed
to be launched
      months ago.

      Earlier this month, after the Russians sent a cargo resupply ship
to Mir, an angry
      Goldin declared, "The Russians have got to decide if they want to
work peacefully
      with other countries, or do they have issues so important to their

national interests
      they want to break their commitments (to the International Space

      And now for the Russian government's side of the story.

      Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian Space Agency, like Goldin has

declared often
      that the Russian government intended to send Mir hurtling into the


      But Koptev and other Russian officials now say that if private
money can keep the
      Mir alive, for a while, they endorse such a plan.

      "That's where the confusion is; the Russian government promised to

take down Mir
      only if private money didn't show up,'' Manber said.

      Against this decidedly bizarre backdrop, nothing is certain about

      After the initial $20 million investment, which Energia is using
to resupply Mir in
      preparation for a planned manned mission in March, there is no
guarantee Manber
      and the others can attract enough interest to entice businesses,
or individuals, to
      spend money on a revitalized Mir.

      "We know we may not succeed, but at least we're trying to show
people that there is
      a better way to do space,'' Manber said.

      Beyond making money, he said: "We believe the Mir is much like the

Eiffel Tower,
      or the pyramids. We believe Mir is a symbol of the best of space
exploration, and
      want it be a symbol of peaceful cooperation - so there will be no
military research on
      the station, if we succeed. We believe the future of the world
(and) the future of
      space should be peaceful.''

      In the end, the effort to extend Mir's life could be rendered
moot, primarily because
      the aging station may not have the legs to handle a rejuvenation

      Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Howell M. Estes III, the former head
of the U.S.
      Space Command and now a private consultant operating his own firm,

      potential problems.

      "I'm in favor of commercializing as much of space as possible, but

Mir may not be
      the right place to do it,'' Estes said from Colorado Springs,
Colo. "Mir really is an
      antique, and we don't want a disaster up there. That would be
horrible for manned
      space. I also question whether private interests can handle manned

missions without
      government involvement.''

      Despite that assessment, MirCorp is charging ahead, Manber said.

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