Fallen Star

A Russian-born journalist penetrates mission control for Mir’s final moments.

Spring came late this year in Moscow. Mornings in March would greet drivers in the frantic Russian capital with gray skies, a drizzling mix of rain and snow, and roads covered with dirty slush. This was the weather I found the day I landed here for a stay that would include witnessing the end of space station Mir’s 15-year mission.

On my way from the airport, I saw a giant billboard towering over a highway. It depicted a spacewalking cosmonaut painting a logo of Java, a brand of Russian cigarette, on the nose of the U.S. space shuttle. A stylized rendering of Mir floated in the background.

I soon discovered that the billboard was one of a series of cigarette ads plastering the city. The entire campaign, unequivocally titled “Strike Back,” was colored by anti-American sentiment. One ad showed a Russian bear conquering the peak of the Empire State Building; another depicted a famous Soviet-era monument—a proletarian and a peasant—overshadowing the Manhattan skyline. Yet another billboard portrayed a U.S. astronaut stunned by a gargantuan pack of Russian cigarettes rising up from the surface of the moon.

My Moscow friends believed the entire campaign was actually staged by U.S. cigarette companies, which had bought a stake in the Russian tobacco industry. To me, though, the blunt images also seemed to be a sign that on the eve of Mir’s demise, Russia’s national pride was aching.

Whatever the case, the deorbiting was taking place at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were not particularly good. Along with coverage of Mir, Russian television news was running stories about an espionage investigation leading to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Washington and Americans from Russia, as well as reports on upcoming contacts between the U.S. Department of State and Chechen separatists, who had recently hijacked a Russian airplane, an act that had ended with a Russian flight attendant being killed. And days before Mir’s deorbiting, NASA increased its opposition to the flight of Dennis Tito, a U.S. businessman who had paid some $20 million to the cash-strapped Russian space industry for a ride on a Soyuz spacecraft and a short stay on the International Space Station.

On the night of March 23, I climbed into a beat-up cab and headed northeast along the Yaroslavl Shosse, a wide and straight freeway that during work hours carries a roaring flood of cars and trucks to and from Moscow. Now the vast road was empty, and sparkled with drizzle. As I looked out the window, my thoughts turned to Mir.

I remembered a cold winter day at a military base hidden in the midst of evergreen woods 500 miles north of Moscow. There, at the age of 18, I was doing my first year of compulsory service in the Soviet army. On February 20, 1986, I was sitting in the base’s closet-like post office, sorting mail, when a friend stopped by to check for letters. “By the way,” he said, knowing my interest in space, “we just launched the new space station called Mir…. They said on TV the thing has six docking ports!” Back then, we had grown accustomed to the space program being surrounded in secrecy, so the release of this information—a sign of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy—was unusual. I could picture Mir as a cluster of modules, with transport ships shuttling between the station and Earth.

Less than a month later, I saw live coverage of the launch of a Soyuz T15 carrying the station’s first crew, Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Soloviev, to a brand-new Mir.

Over the next 15 years, the Russians made 28 expeditions to the station. Except for a short break in 1989, Mir was continuously inhabited from 1987 to 1999. That August, a cash-strapped Russian government decided it could no longer pay for more expeditions.

One privately financed trip to the station was conducted in 2000, but for the most part, Mir passed its final months unmanned, its systems slowly deteriorating in the absence of maintenance. Finally, in the second half of 2000, officials from RKK Energia, the company that built and operated Mir, decided to deorbit the outpost while it was still under control.

To the Communist representatives in the Duma, the Russian parliament, the abandonment of Mir was a form of treason. In the week preceding Mir’s reentry, they called for a vote of no confidence in the government of President Vladimir Putin, citing, among other things, the decision to deorbit Mir. (The proposal did not pass.)

Die-hard defenders of Mir staged demonstrations before the Moscow City Hall, the headquarters of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, and the mission control building in the town of Korolev. Throughout Moscow, everyone from taxi drivers to TV stars seemed to have an opinion about the events taking place 130 miles up. Everyone had a plan for saving Mir and with it, Russia’s stature as the leading space power.

Widely publicized proposals ranged from parking Mir in a higher orbit until better economic days to launching a new Mir-2. The latter idea received a lot of attention in the Russian media, since it apparently originated in the Duma. However, the money for such a project had yet to be found; one popular Moscow TV comedian joked that Mir-2 would be built on the bottom of the ocean, so it would never need to be deorbited.

Despite the multitude of opinions, in the attitude toward their space program, the Russians  seemed to be falling into two irreconcilable camps—much like the division that 19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev once characterized as “fathers and sons.”

Mikhail Kirushkin, a veteran of mission control’s public affairs office, held views very similar to those expressed by Communist representatives in the Duma. He saw the space program heading for a gloomy future. “The hole we are falling in has no bottom,” he said to me. “We will continue going down as long as present authorities stay in power.” Kirushkin believed that rampant corruption in the Russian government, combined with what are perceived to be efforts by the United States to squeeze Russia out of the International Space Station, has already doomed the national space effort. “Essentially, we are serving the U.S. space program, and Americans will throw us out as soon as they get from us the hardware and experience they need,” Kirushkin said.

In contrast, the younger generation of Russians, while accepting the realities of today’s Russia, sees the situation less pessimistically. Sergei Kazulin, a former classmate of mine at Moscow State University, said: “Our independent spaceflights are over. International cooperation in space, and launches that our economy needs, will go on. The space program still remains a ‘holy cow’ in our society; our public opinion has always said ‘Don’t dare kill the space program.’ ”

My cab crossed the boundary of Moscow in the direction of Korolev, an endless suburban sprawl of dachas, apartment blocks, and industrial parks. In the darkness we drove along an endless brick wall. Slightly before 3 a.m., we finally reached a windowless, marble-clad building with an arched entrance. This was mission control center, known by its Russian abbreviation: TsUP. Since it was completed in the mid-1970s in anticipation of the Soyuz-Apollo docking mission, it has served as the façade of the Russian space program, one of the few facilities in the program open to foreigners and the press. For many years, countless dignitaries and journalists had gathered here to witness crucial launches, dockings, and landings.

The parking lot and adjacent curbs were already jammed with cars. In the building’s vast, sterile, poorly lit lobby, our hosts struggled to process large stacks of accreditation letters and invitations.

Finally I was handed an ID. To my horror, it turned out that its color coding, green, indicated that I was restricted to the International Space Station control room. The amphitheater-

like main balcony of the Mir control room was open only to the lucky owners of blue (guest) and red (specialist) identification cards. A uniformed militia officer stood by the entrance to enforce the distinctions. My desperate pleas to be let in, at least for a short interview of some space program official, had zero effect on him.

My next attempt to enter the Mir control room, this time through the door of the main floor, was foiled by another guard. “We let in only people on the list,” he told me sternly. Someone behind me asked: “Would you let in a cosmonaut?” It turned out to be Alexander Kaleri. In April 2000, he and his commander, Sergei Zaletin, had boarded Mir on a mission advertised as the first in a new era of commercially sponsored spaceflights. As it turned out, the two-month flight, paid for by a group of U.S. businessmen hoping to commercialize Mir, was the station’s last.

As Kaleri squeezed himself into the crowded room, I saw, through the doorway, a staircase on the other side of the room, littered with numerous cables and electronic equipment. Thirty seconds and two flights of stairs later, I entered the balcony of the Mir control room, exactly opposite the militia-guarded entrance. (In Russia, they say, every place has a back door.)

The huge room was flooded with the lights of TV crews and completely jammed with officials, photographers, and reporters. I could see the Mir control floor, and on the main wall a giant screen showing a map of the world. The doomed space station was represented by a shining dot that crawled over the map in a sinusoidal trajectory.

Minutes later, the impassive voice of the commentator announced that the first of three deorbiting engine burns had started. It was 3:32 a.m. Moscow time.

If there was a single person now holding the fate of Mir, it was Vladimir Soloviev, a member of the first Mir crew, who became station operations manager in 1989. In the early 1990s, while working for a daily Moscow paper, I had interviewed him about the future of Russian spaceflight. Soloviev spoke with hope about Mir-2, and about bigger and better transports shuttling between Earth and the future space station.

I had last seen Soloviev only days before, on the same balcony, explaining to reporters the techniques of deorbiting and all scenarios, probable and improbable, that might arise as the 137-ton station dove toward its fiery death. Now he was speaking about upcoming deorbiting operations. When asked if he would be saddened by the loss of Mir, he replied that his team still had a lot of projects to work on. “But what are your personal feelings [about the deorbiting]?” one reporter asked insistently. “My personal feeling is that everything goes as scheduled…. Everybody wants to see me cry,” he complained.

On the main control floor, I spotted another major player in the Mir saga: Victor Blagov, who for many years managed the shifts of controllers monitoring the station’s systems. When asked the hardest and most politically incorrect questions, he always gave sincere and expert answers, so he was probably the TsUP official that the Russian press corps respected most.

Blagov was sitting at the back row of the control room, in front of a computer display topped with a sign reading “Flight Manager.” On the screen, he watched the telemetry information from the next-to-last burn of the engine of the Progress cargo ship that was docked to the station. This maneuver would send Mir into its final orbit around Earth.

As several of his associates flocked around, Blagov leaned back in his chair, his pose suggesting “Look ma, no hands.” As if to confirm his confidence, the flight commentator reported that the orbit correction maneuver had succeeded and all systems on Mir were performing nominally.

Back on the balcony, I met Yuri Grigoriev, the deputy designer general of RKK Energia, a company born along with Soviet rocketry in 1946. RKK Energia’s vast industrial park was located just a block away from TsUP. In 1965, as a young graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, Grigoriev joined what was then called OKB-1, a top-secret development center that was at the helm of the race with the United States to land a man on the moon. “It was the time of unconditional romanticism,” Grigoriev remembered. Since then, he had managed the development of Russian spacecraft from Soyuz to Mir to Zvezda, a segment of the International Space Station. “Mir has been part of my life since the very beginning,” he said as we walked into the crowded foyer outside the Mir control room, “and it is very sad to see it go before its time.”

Grigoriev’s main concerns extended beyond Mir. He worried about the future of his organization, hanging on a shoestring government budget. “Look, how can I hire young talent, when [Russian] private industry can pay college graduates several times of what I can offer?” he asked. “Good graduates still come to our company to get unique experience and skills, but they won’t stay because it is impossible to survive on our salary.

“As long as our government continues its present policies, I am pessimistic,” he added. “It is abnormal for any country to sell out its national treasures—energy, resources, everything—to a few individuals.” This is a belief that many in Russia share—that by giving control of Russia’s resources to a few “oligarchs,” the government lost its ability to finance the development of various sectors, including technology.

As I mulled over Grigoriev’s words, I noticed in the foyer an impressive bust of Vladimir Lenin towering over the nicotine-soaked twilight. Looking at it, I could imagine the man’s ideas about social engineering and state-managed economy coming alive again, if only in the appreciation many Russians like Grigoriev feel for the old days.

Around eight in the morning, I reentered the Mir control room via my secret route. I was just in time for the final maneuver, which would send Mir out of orbit and plunging toward the Pacific. Numerous TV reporters and cameramen lined up along the edge of the balcony.

As the flight commentator confirmed normal ignition and burn in the third and final maneuver of the deorbiting process, Mir sent its last flickering video images to mission control: On the big screen, some distant shoreline veiled in splintered clouds floated by peacefully.

The top seats on the balcony were occupied by a crowd of diplomats, primarily from the countries that were under Mir’s reentry path. (Jaime Bautista, ambassador of the Philippines in Moscow, joked that a crash of Mir in Manila Bay would be a turning point in his career.) As they tried to understand the technical jargon and shaky English of the mission control commentators, they watched the map as it showed Mir’s final swing over the Eastern hemisphere.

At 8:31 a.m., Mir left the range

of ground control stations forever, and an official announcement confirmed that the station was on its way into the target impact area: a strip of the Pacific 40 degrees south of the Equator.

On the main screen, the map of the world was replaced with one you usually come across only in the back pages of atlases. Yet this morning, the region of the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and South America became the most watched area on Earth.

I heard a commotion at the back of the balcony and turned around. One by one, captains of the Russian space industry were entering a guarded conference hall hidden behind the Mir control room. I later learned that in a strange reunion, Yuri Koptev, the director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, who had become an unwilling advocate of the unpopular decision to deorbit Mir, and Yuri Semenov, charismatic president of RKK Energia, who for years had defied the pressure to dump his beloved space station, had come together to drink a glass of vodka.

At 8:45 a.m., the mission control commentator reported that the U.S. radar station at the Kwajalein atoll detected Mir on its planned descent trajectory. Seconds before 9 a.m. the voice announced: “The station Mir concluded its triumphant flight.” There were no cheers or applause, just a sigh of relief that swept throughout the control floor and the balcony.

The map disappeared from the big screen, and was replaced by a diagram of the Mir space station with a caption in Russian: “OK [Orbital Complex] Mir, Launch: 20.02.1986, Descent: 23.03.2001.”

The bear-like figure of Yuri Koptev appeared from the conference room and was immediately aimed at by dozens of TV cameras and microphones. “This is a sad but inevitable event,” Koptev said stoically. “This spacecraft created the foundation for the International Space Station.” Following his statement, Semenov and other officials emerged from their retreat.

Half an hour later, reporters and officials weary from the sleepless night gathered in a large conference center known as the blue room. Only there, after many hours in a windowless space, did I discover that the new day had started.

As the officials took seats around the conference table in the jammed room, Koptev joked: “Let our orphan Semenov take the central seat.”

“This station could fly for another two or three years,” said the RKK Energia president. “However, our goal was to end the mission in a civilized way.”

Koptev again and again appealed to the press to understand the mission planners’ predicament—that in Russia today, the money just can’t keep pace with the ingenuity. “We are all very smart but very poor,” he said. “We understand the emotions involved in this decision; however, we had to make this step.”

Koptev’s arguments failed to silence his critics. As I returned home from the long day at the TsUP, Moscow radio was reporting that Communist representatives in the Duma, citing the decision to deorbit Mir, had called for Koptev’s resignation.

On a train leaving Moscow, I struck up a conversation about the deorbiting with the fellow sharing my car. It turned out he used to work at a research facility in the small eastern Russian town of Nizhniya Salda, where he had participated in the development and testing of engines for rockets and spacecraft, including Mir and Soyuz. “We are yet to learn how much we have lost,” he said about Mir. “I see two possible outcomes: Either our space program will go down the crapper, or in a few years they will fathom what happened and make steps to rebuild the station.”

When I quoted the price of operating Mir, he replied: “What is 250 million dollars a year for a country like Russia? Nothing. This is our Russian way: first to lose, rob, and destroy, and then to rebuild from scratch. The entire Russian history is like that.”

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