Index

The New York Times
May 23, 2000

Proud Russia Keeps Mir Aloft

WARREN E. LEARY

By some plans, it should have been long dead. With most of its structure disintegrated by a fiery re-entry through Earth's atmosphere, the remains of the giant spacecraft should be resting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Instead, the Russian Mir space station remains in orbit. Even as astronauts from the space shuttle Atlantis were preparing the nascent International Space Station for future occupancy, a pair of astronauts aboard Mir were busily repairing worn components and readying it for future visits. Previously abandoned, battered and showing all the effects of its sometimes troubled 14 years in space, the Mir just keeps going on and on.

Long the subject of premature obituaries, Mir, the pride of the cash-starved Russian space program, is now operating because of last-minute money from Western investors. With the help of more than $20 million in outside money and spacecraft supplied by Russian partners, it appears life of the 130-ton space station may extend past its 15th anniversary in orbit next February.

"I am not surprised that the Russians found a way to keep Mir up," said Marcia Smith, a space analyst with the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service. "It is a source of great national pride and they are very resourceful."

While Mir's continued operation delights Russia and some space enthusiasts worldwide, the United States and other partners in the next-generation International Space Station see it as a potential threat to the new project. How can Russia, they ask, with its limited resources, both support Mir and keep its commitments as a major partner in the new station?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is leading the international project, notes that Russia is a sovereign nation with the right to do what it wants with Mir and the rest of its space program. But NASA officials express chagrin that the international project is more than two years behind schedule, mainly because of Russian delays in completing critical components because of inadequate financing.

NASA's administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, told a Congressional subcommittee last month that he was highly frustrated that Russia would agree to a venture to extend Mir operations after saying that it would abandon the station and concentrate its resources on the new project. "They always seem to have a little extra money around for Mir but not the International Space Station," he said.

Mr. Goldin said earlier that Russia must keep its agreement to concentrate its resources on the new project. "The Russians have got to focus, and the primary focus is meeting their commitment to the International Space Station," he said, "If Mir saps their strength in meeting their commitments, then we have serious problems."

The first two modules of the $60 billion international station, one American and one Russian, have been in orbit since the fall of 1998 awaiting the arrival of a crucial third component, a Russian-made service module that is to provide initial living quarters and laboratory space for the growing station. Program officials say the Russian segment, which must be in place before more parts are added to the station, is ready and set to be launched in July.

Meanwhile, the Russian astronauts Sergei Zalyotin and Aleksandr Kalery continue their 60-day mission of putting Mir back into working order and assessing the orbiting outpost for future renovations and commercial applications. The crew arrived at Mir on April 6 and concentrated on making the station habitable again before starting a program of scientific research. The astronauts found and patched what they believe was the source of a persistent air leak, and used supplies brought up by an unmanned Progress cargo craft to repair and restock the station.

On May 12, the astronauts conducted a five-hour spacewalk outside Mir to inspect its outer hull and retrieve experimental packages left out by previous crews. They discovered that a solar power panel that stopped working in March apparently suffered a short circuit that charred external wiring and tested a new glue designed to seal cracks in aging spacecraft. The glue, which its developers said could be used to fill small cracks and leaks in any spacecraft, was applied to a special test panel and left outside Mir to be retrieved later.

All of this activity comes just nine months after Mir was supposedly abandoned in preparation for nudging it out of orbit with rockets and letting it burn up in the upper atmosphere. The Russian government pledged to put no more money into the station and let it die, unless private financing was found to keep it in orbit. Several groups proposed schemes to save Mir, but none could come up with the estimated $100 million to $200 million a year needed to operate the station.

This situation changed at the beginning of the year when a group of Western investors formed a company called MirCorp and began raising money. MirCorp, chartered in Bermuda and based in Amsterdam, received initial financing of about $20 million from Gold & Appel Transfer S.A., a Caribbean-based venture capital holding company. In February, MirCorp signed an agreement with RSC Energia, the privatized Russian company that built and operates Mir, for commercial use of the station for the remainder of its life. Energia, which is 38 percent owned by the Russian government, became the majority stockholder in MirCorp and retains ownership of Mir.

MirCorp announced sweeping plans for the station, including turning it into a space hotel for wealthy tourists willing to pay $20 million for a unique vacation, leasing space to pharmaceutical and materials companies wanting to do proprietary research, and establishing Internet and entertainment businesses in space.

Jeffrey Manber, an American who is president of MirCorp, said in an interview that the company had raised $40 million so far and was trying to drum up another $100 million before a possible public stock offering next year. Mr. Manber said the company had almost raised enough money for its next announced mission to Mir, sending up a crew this fall with equipment to start Internet services from orbit and beginning renovations of the station.

"We have not promised things that we have not delivered," Mr. Manber said. "We have hit our technical milestones and have hit the basics of our business model, and are very optimistic about our chances. With each success we have, we think we can raise more money on the good news."

Mr. Manber said that, according to the accounting and investment firms the company is consulting about a stock offering, MirCorp could raise between $300 million and $500 million by going public. If this happens, he said, the Russians could come away with up to $200 million to revitalize their space industry and the company would have more money to upgrade the station and perhaps even build a new central module for it.

"Only the core module of Mir is 14 years old," Mr. Manber said. "If you build a new core and add the newer modules of the current station, then you have a much younger station in space available for commercial uses for a long time."

James E. Oberg, a former NASA engineer and Houston-based expert on the Russian space program, said MirCorp was not assured success, "but I admire them for giving it a try."

"They have taken a risky, innovative approach and the basis of opportunity is taking chances," Mr. Oberg said, "A lot of the things they are proposing are off-the-wall ideas, but some have merits."

Charles P. Vick, a space analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said he did not believe there was enough private interest and money available to finance expansive Mir plans. "I don't think the capital is there, unless it is put in by governments. It just seems like a limited program that won't go very far."

John E. Pike, another federation analyst, said the changing political climate in Russia might be shifting in Mir's favor. Russia's new president, Vladimir V. Putin, pledged last month to fulfill his country's commitments to the international station, but also voiced strong support for Mir and the Russian space industry. "The space sector is not only a prestigious sector which makes our country a great power," Mr. Putin said, "but it is also linked to economic and scientific development."

During this commemoration of the nation's annual Astronaut Day, Russian news agencies reported that Mr. Putin said he would include money for Mir in next year's space budget.

"This suggests a continuation of Mir that the previous administration of Boris N. Yeltsin said it didn't support," Mr. Pike said. "Is this part of a larger re-evaluation of Russia's relationship with the United States, a signal of a new Russian independence?"


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company