The unfortunate crash of Russia’s MIR Space Station: going back to the pages of astronomical history

Looking back at Russia’s Mir Space Station - what went wrong?

One of Russia’s greatest space stations, the Mir space station, is registered as the first-ever modular space station in orbit. This Russian space station can be translated as “peace,” “village,” and even “world.” This space station was commissioned in 1986, and it represents the essence of international collaboration that resulted in its creation. It was primarily owned and operated by the Soviet Union. However, after 1991, it came under the authority and control of the Russian Federal Space Agency.

The true intention of the space station was to host international scientists and astronauts from NASA to resemble world peace. In a way, Mir can be considered the prolog for the idea of an International Space Station, which made it to be the largest satellite in Earth’s orbit.

Russia’s Mir Space Station: Origin

In the 60s and 70s, the United States had invested all its resources, time, and money on Apollo and the Space Shuttle program. During this time, Russia started to drive all focus on gaining expertise in long-term spacecraft and felt the need for a wider and bigger space station to perform more research in that area. After getting authorized by a government decree in February 1976, the space station was initially planned to be a better version of the Salyut space station.

There was a need for a core module in the original plan, which could only have been acquired with four docking ports. Eventually, the plan grew to add multiple ports for Progress cargo spaceships and Soyuz spacecraft. The plan emerged to its final configuration by August 1978, with one aft port and other ports at the forward end in a spherical compartment.

Each of these docking ports has the capability of accommodating around 20-tonne space station modules depending on the TKS spacecraft, which is an old generation spacecraft that was utilized for bringing supplies and cosmonauts to the Salyut space stations. In 1979, work started on the station, and soon in 1982 and 83, drawings were released. With the onset of 1984, work had to undergo a bit of a halt as every Russian space resource was used in the Buran program, which was a Russian reusable spacecraft project. In early 1984, fundings resumed as the determination to orbit Mir by the Central Committee became strong.

Russia’s Mir Space Station: Missions

During the 15-years of the journey, Mir was visited by a total of 28 “principal” crews. Although the space voyage varied in length, it typically lasted six months. With two or three crew members, the principal expedition crews often went to space as a part of one voyage or expedition but returned with another.

The primary effort of the Soviet Union’s staffed spacecraft program was maintaining a deep-rooted and continuing research outpost in space. After 1991, the new Russian Federal Space Agency got control to operate this spacecraft program, and a huge majority of the space station crew were Russian. With international collaborations, the astronauts from North America, Japan, and other European nations could access the pace station.

The collaborative programs consisted of the Shuttle-Mir, Euromir, and Intercosmos programs. The Intercosmos program was in action from 1978-1988, comprising astronauts from the Warsaw pact and socialist nations, including Cuba, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Mongolia. The program also included the pro-Soviet non-aligned nations like Syria, India, and even France. Starting from the 1990s, Euromir was a collaborative program between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency to welcome all the European astronauts into the space station.

However, the Shuttle-Mir program was the most popular collaborative program between the US and Russia. The program involved Russian cosmonauts in flying over the shuttle, American space shuttles to come to visit the space station, and most importantly, an American astronaut to engage in long-term voyages aboard Mir on a Soyuz spacecraft.

Before it got decommissioned, the space station got visited by nearly 104 different people from multiple nations, registering Mir as the most visited spacecraft in the history of humankind. Later, the record was surpassed and broken by the International Space Station.

Russia’s Mir Space Station: Decommissioning

After getting launched in 1986, Mir was planned to have an extended life span of about five years. However, it exceeded everyone’s expectations and showed greater longevity. However, an unfortunate event took place in the station, which resulted in a series of structural and technical problems. It was November 2000 when the Russian government announced the decommissioning of the Mir space station.

On January 24, 2001, a Russian Progress cargo ship assembled at the station while carrying around twice the amount of fuel that it needed. The additional fuel was carried to fire the cargo ships’ thrusters once it landed on Mir. The Russian government bought insurance as a precautionary step if the space station strikes any populated area when it hits and crashes on Earth.

Lucky for us, the space station landed about 2,897 kilometers from New Zealand and crashed into the South Pacific Ocean. Yuri Koptev, the former RKA General Director, shared the total estimated cost of the Mir program to be around $4.2 billion in his 2001 statement. The estimated cost included the assembly, development, and orbital operation costs.

The Mir became famous as an accident-prone spacecraft after the Russian space station stepped forward into its second decade, even after delivering unparalleled consistent service for years.

In February 1997, the station was endangered with a 15-minute fire caught over an oxygen-generating device. Issues with altitude and environmental controls and Elektron-electrolysis oxygen-generating unit failures resulted in power outages and computer malfunctioning. The integrity of the Spektr’s hull got breached when the Progress supply vehicle collided in June 1997, resulting in the module being uninhabitable.

However, Mir got through with the collision, and all its space explorers endured. In its entire lifetime, Mir hosted about 125 astronauts and cosmonauts from twelve different countries while supporting 17 space voyages comprising of 28 long-term crew members.

The 31 spacecraft docked in Mir and brought residents to the space station. Moreover, around supplies and resources were periodically ferried to Mir via 64 uncrewed cargo vessels. It served as a floating research laboratory for about 23,000 medical and scientific experiments.

By early 2001, Mir was gone, and the International Space Station was growing immense popularity in orbit. When Mir got deorbit, Russia debarred four US diplomats to retribution the American exclusion of 50 Russian diplomats’ surveillance-like operations. Although it wasn’t the Cold War again, international tensions were definitely continuing.

Russia’s Mir Space Station: Legacy

Russia’s Mir space station lived through 15 years in orbit and hosted numerous international visitors and crew members. After enduring three times more than its planned lifetime, this space station was a benchmark in astronomical history. It raised the first wheat crop in outer space and resembled the past glory of Russia. Mir is a symbol of Russia’s potential to be a future leader in space exploration.

However, this space station remained a hot topic of controversy over the years due to multiple hazards and accidents that it endured. The worst yet famous of these accidents occurred during its STS-81 mission on February 24, 1997. During this mission, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis delivered supplies crews and conducted a range of tests, the worst accidental fire broke out on the orbiting spacecraft.

Russia’s Mir Space Station: Conclusion

All in all, Mir served as the center stage for the first-ever technical, astronomical, and large-scale collaboration between the US and Russia after decades of mutual hostility. Mir was the stepping stone of what the ISS is today. Numerous research efforts in collaboration wouldn’t have been possible without Mir.

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