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Mission Control: ”The Mir Has Finished Its Triumphant Flight”

KOROLYOV, Russia – On Friday the Mir space station returned to Earth in pieces, ending its 15-year, 2.2 billion-mile odyssey with a fiery plunge into the South Pacific, Russian space officials said.

There was no immediate indication that remains of the spacecraft had hit anything but water. Russia authorities said that an intricate series of engine firings, meant to ensure that no populated areas were placed in jeopardy, had gone as planned.

“The Mir has finished its triumphant flight,” a Mission Control announcer said. Mission Control said the remains of Mir had hit the water but some lighter fragments were gliding toward Earth. Burning remnants of Mir could be seen as they shot across the sky over Fiji.

“It was at very high altitude and very high speed. It was very bright, had a long tail of smoke, which remained in the atmosphere for several minutes,” said Sunflower Air pilot Neli Vuatalevu, who was flying 8,000 feet above Nadi, Fiji.

Engines of the cargo ship Progress, attached to Mir, fired twice to slow the spacecraft and put it into an elliptical orbit. Then, shortly after midnight Eastern time, the engines blasted one last time to hurl the station into the waters between Australia and Chile.

The death of Mir marked the end of a proud chapter in the Russian space program; it proved that long duration space flight was possible. Its passing came with much wistfulness, and some protest. About 15 demonstrators briefly rallied Thursday outside Mission Control, holding up a portrait of Yuri Gagarin, the Russian who was the first man in space.

“Don’t Give Up the Russian Space Industry,” the sign read. But Mir was doomed. The impoverished Russian government could not afford to keep it in orbit – and in good repair – while fulfilling its obligations to the construction of the international space station.

Inside Mission Control near Moscow, the mood was strictly professional. Controllers bottled up regrets over Mir’s demise as they pored over charts and figures in preparation for crucial commands that would power the final descent early Friday.

“All the emotions we feel, we will only be able to express them tomorrow after the sinking of the station,” said Andrei Borisenko, the shift director at Mission Control. “Today we are working without emotion and doing our jobs.”

On its last day, the aging space station soaked up the sun’s energy to power its fickle batteries and stabilize its alignment.

Its target area was 120 miles wide by 3,600 miles long, and centered roughly at 44 degrees south latitude and 150 degrees west longitude. Scientists knew most of the 143-ton craft would burn up during re-entry – temperatures were expected to reach more than 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the remaining chunks – 27 1/2 tons, the equivalent of 20 Volkswagen Beetles – were expected to reach the Earth’s surface, scattered over a long swath. Some 1,500 fragments of 40 pounds or more were expected to fall over the zone.

But Vyacheslav Mikhailichenko, a spokesman for the Russian aerospace agency, said the Mir entered the atmosphere at a steeper angle than expected, meaning that the debris would fall into a more compact area within the dumping zone.

Space officials said in its last moments, Mir traveled at 200 to 300 yards per second. At that speed debris could smash through a block of concrete six-feet thick.

Vsevolod Latyshev, a spokesman at Mission Control, said Russia would make no effort to recover the debris. “What for?” he asked quizzically.

Space officials had voiced confidence that they could carry out a safe descent, pointing to their experience in dumping dozens of Progress ships and other spacecraft into the same area of the Pacific.

But Mir was by far the heaviest spacecraft ever dumped, and its size and shape made it difficult to exactly predict the re-entry.

A fleet of fishing boats in the zone insisted on staying put because the tuna were biting, said Wayne Heikkila, general manager of the Western Fishboat Owners Association.

Thirty-five space buffs and scientists were in the South Pacific to chase the plunging station; participants were optimistic that they would catch sight of Mir in a 200-second window of opportunity.

And Taco Bell set up a 40-by-40 foot vinyl target – emblazoned with the company’s logo and the words “Free Taco Here!” – 10 miles off Australia. In the extremely unlikely event that Mir hit the target, the company promised free tacos to all 281 million Americans.

But to Russians, Mir’s demise was no joke. Mir came to symbolize the Soviet Union’s fading technological prowess. It was launched in 1986 – just five weeks before former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev embarked upon perestroika, the reforms that doomed the Communist empire, and just two months before the Chernobyl atomic reactor exploded in the world’s worst nuclear accident.

The orbiter had circled the Earth 86,320 times as of Thursday, space officials said. Named after the Russian word that means both peace and world, Mir housed 104 astronauts in its lifetime. Sixty-two of them were from other countries, including seven Americans. Thirty-eight other Americans visited Mir when space shuttles docked there.

But NASA would have nothing to say about Mir’s ending, according to spokeswoman Kirsten Larson. It was tracking the space station’s return to Earth.

The space travelers performed about 23,000 experiments, growing wheat, building semiconductors, studying the effects of long-term weightlessness on humans.

But in its last years, Mir became something of an orbiting lemon. In 1997, an oxygen-generating canister caught fire, a supply ship crashed into the station, its computer system broke down and its power failed.

In December, Mission Control lost contact with the station for more than 20 hours because the aging batteries suddenly lost power. Space officials have managed to retain contact with Mir during subsequent power losses, but each incident disabled the central computer for days.

Key Statistics about Mir

  • STRUCTURE: Mir has a core module and five other components weighing about 143 tons in all. With a cargo ship and an escape capsule attached, it weighs up to 154 tons. The modules are arranged in a T-shaped structure, 86 feet by 96 feet by 99 feet.

  • AVERAGE SPEED: 17,885 mph in orbit.

  • AVERAGE ORBIT: 250 miles above the Earth.

  • NUMBER OF ORBITS: 86,320 as of Thursday.

  • CREWS: Since launch Feb. 20, 1986, Mir has had 104 people aboard, including 42 Russian cosmonauts, seven NASA astronauts and others from Britain, France, Germany and other countries.

  • GLITCHES: More than 1,500, including near-fatal collision with cargo ship in June 1997 and on-board fire earlier that year.

  • WORLD’S LONGEST SPACE MISSION: Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, 438 days in 1994-1995.

  • SPACEWALKS: Cosmonauts and astronauts conducted 78 spacewalks, lasting 352 hours in total.

  • FINAL HOURS: Progress cargo ship engines fire last time for 23 minutes to send the station into the South Pacific between Australia and Chile in a target zone centered roughly around 44 degrees south latitude and 150 degrees west longitude.

  • DEBRIS: Some 1,500 fragments of 40 pounds or more are expected to fall over the zone, which is 120 miles wide by 3,600 miles long.

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