Image: People Watch As Russian Space Station Mir Races Across Sky In Fiji
Guests at a resort in Nadi, Fiji watch the evening sky as pieces of the Russian space station Mir race across above their heads during the space station's deorbiting Friday.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

After 15 years of triumphs and troubles, Russia’s Mir space station blazed across South Pacific skies to a watery grave Friday. Russian mission controllers were praised for their perfect ditch effort, but the country mourned the fallen star of its legendary space program.

“We'll get together and drink 50 grams of brandy for our station,” Alexander Lazutkin, who stayed on Mir for six months in 1997, said after engineers successfully steered the empty craft out of orbit and into the South Pacific.

The operation dispelled fears that Russia would not be able to dump the accident-prone craft safely. “We will drink to it all having ended well and to us still being able to show we are good at something,” Lazutkin said.

But there was no rejoicing and no cheers at ground control as news came in that Mir’s demise had gone as planned.

“Everybody wants me to cry but I won’t,” said Vladimir Solovyov, the first commander on board Mir and now mission control chief.

Other Russian space officials exulted over the crash, even though it meant the end of one of the country’s greatest achievements in space, a decision opposed by some Russians.

“It has been an exemplary operation, and our experts have not made a mistake in any single step, not in a millimeter,” said Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian Aerospace agency.

“Russia will remain a great space power.”

Ditched without a hitch
The operation, which proceeded without a hitch, snuffed out the life of the largest object ever brought down from orbit. Controllers said debris from the 138-ton, 100-foot-long complex fell into the planned target zone between New Zealand and Chile.

The ditch effort began early Friday when Mission Control issued commands for a series of three engine bursts from a cargo spaceship attached to the space station that pushed Mir down through the atmosphere.

Most of the space station burned up during the descent: Witnesses in Fiji said they could see a fiery Mir shooting across the evening sky.

Flying his light aircraft from inland Fiji back to the western city of Nadi, pilot Neli Vuatalevu had a front-row seat.

“It was spectacular. The best fireworks I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again in my life,” said 29-year-old Vuatalevu.

Others saw the station break up into separate flaming pieces.

“It was like someone shining a spotlight in your eyes, it was really intense,” said Associated Press photographer Rob Griffith, who watched the Mir roar overhead.

Some members of a tour group that included cosmonauts and other space-savvy VIPs reported seeing a similarly spectacular show from airplanes flying out of Fiji. Others among the group, however, said they missed the main event.

Tons of debris survived re-entry and fell within the Pacific target zone, which was chosen to minimize the risk of injuries or damage to property. Initial reports indicated that the debris fell harmlessly into the ocean. Just to be safe, the Russians had taken out a $200 million insurance policy to cover potential damages, airlines rerouted Pacific flights, and nations ranging from Japan to Chile went on alert during the deorbiting.

A fleet of tuna-fishing boats was stuck in the target zone when Mir fell, but a spokesman for the fleet said there were no immediate reports of injury.

Odds were one in a 100 million that someone in Japan would be hit by a falling chunk of Mir. But that didn’t ease tensions on the island nation. Japan was so jittery about the mission that it set up a crisis management center and kept the prime minister advised.

As expected, the debris from Mir fell nowhere near a 40-by-40-foot floating sign that a fast-food restaurant chain set up off the coast of Australia as a publicity gimmick. Taco Bell had promised to give every American a free taco if Mir’s core module hit the sign.

Pride and problems
The Mir space station was once the crown jewel of the Soviet space effort. Its first module was launched on Feb. 20, 1986, just weeks after the Challenger explosion dealt NASA its worst setback.

After the Soviet breakup of the early 1990s, Mir housed the first extended Russian-American space missions, serving as a model for International Space Station Alpha, which is now under construction.

Over the years, Mir’s 106 residents demonstrated conclusively that long-duration space flight was possible, although it took a toll on bones and muscles.

A string of problems aboard Mir in 1997 — ranging from an onboard fire to computer breakdowns to a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship — took the shine off the jewel. Then the cash-strapped Russian government said it had to cut off money for Mir to follow through on its financial commitments to International Space Station Alpha.

Energia tried to keep the station alive with millions of dollars in backing from Western investors, through a venture called MirCorp. The investors funded the station’s final manned mission, which ended last June. Since then, Mir has been guided remotely by Mission Control.

Last November, the Russians finally decided to sink Mir, saying they couldn’t keep the old station going while following through on their commitments to the new Alpha station.

Looking ahead, looking back
Russians will continue to play a key role in space as a partner in the Alpha project. Just this week, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev took the helm as Alpha’s Expedition 2 commander. Nevertheless, some Russians worry that the new era won’t live up to Mir’s glory days.

“Of course the Russian space effort will be significantly reduced, because when we had Mir, it was a purely Russian space station and we could do whatever research we wanted to,” Ryumin said. “But now that we are part of the International Space Station, we have such countries as the United States, Japan, Canada and the European countries involved in that project, so the effort of the Russian side will be much smaller and we’ll have to do everything in a coordinated manner.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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