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Cosmonauts to reopen and repair Mir for future use
By JAMES OBERG, UPI Space Writer

HOUSTON, April 4 (UPI) -- Two Russian cosmonauts blasted off Tuesday
morning on the world's first commercial manned space mission.

The flight may bring new life to the 14-year-old Mir space station as well
as new threats to NASA's plans for the new International Space Station.

Rookie commander Sergei Zalyotin, a Lt. Col. in Russian Air Force, and
two-time Mir veteran flight engineer Alexandr Kaleri, a civilian, will reach
Mir on Thursday morning. The station has been empty since last August when
cosmonauts ended a nearly 10-yearlong period of rotating crews in space.

Officially their Soyuz TM-30 mission is planned for 45 days, with a
possible extension to 90 days. They would then switch the Mir back to
autopilot and leave it empty.

But unofficially, Russian space officials and veteran cosmonauts hope they
can remain in space for up to six months until they are relieved by a new
cosmonaut team in September.

Although Russia had already budgeted for this manned Soyuz flight, its
purpose originally had been to prepare the station for deliberate crashing
into the Pacific Ocean. NASA has been urging that course of action so that
Russia could concentrate its limited space resources on fulfilling its
commitments to the International Space Station.

However, a Western corporation, Mircorp, has provided the Russians with
$20 million in an attempt to repair the Mir and open it for commercial
applications such as research and even tourism.

"NASA would like Mir put in the ocean so that they have the only space
station," said Walt Anderson, one of the leading American financers of
Mircorp. "But the International Space Station is fantasy land."

The first serious commercial plan, involving sending an actor into space
on this flight to shoot scenes for a movie, collapsed when adequate funding
could not be raised in time. The actor, Vladimir Steklov, is still available
to make a later flight to Mir.

"I am glad they are waiting for a real deal with real money and a much
larger project," said Rick Tumlinson, whose pioneering advocacy of the
commercialization of Mir led to the Mircorp deal.

"You only get one 'first movie in space'", he told United Press
International. "Therefore it would be great if that first one could be done
right, with global level stars and production."

According to officials at the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation in
Moscow, which operates Russia's manned space program, the future of Mir
depends on obtaining additional funding in the coming months. As
stockholders in Mircorp, they are seeking both commercial and government

Reports persist that the Chinese government may lease access to Mir for
its own manned space flights over the next several years. Some Chinese
astronauts have been trained in Russia, and China's Shenzhou spaceship is
largely based on Russian designs.
The greatest technical challenge facing Zalyotin and Kaleri is to find and
repair a small pesky air leak on the station.

They are scheduled to spend nearly the entire month of April locating the
leak in one of the station's six modules, and then patching it with special

Mir has been losing about 1 percent of its air per week since last summer.
But even if the leak is not found, say Russian experts, they can merely ship
up additional tanks of compressed air to refill the station as needed.

The cosmonauts are also scheduled to make a space walk on May 6.

Another challenge facing the cosmonauts is poor radio links with Earth.
Russian relay satellites which used to provide frequent coverage have broken
down, and contact with Mission Control in Moscow is only possible for a few
minutes every hour and a half. For almost half of each day, no communication
is possible at all.

During the period that American astronauts were aboard Mir, NASA relayed
voice signals between Mir and Moscow through several American space centers.
But that equipment has been dismantled.

"We have no plans to use any NASA resources to support this flight," NASA
spokesman Rob Navias told UPI by telephone from Houston.

In London last February for the Mircorp contract signing, Yuriy Semyonov,
director of Energia, said that after 14 years the lifetime of the core
module was only 40 percent spent. In practical terms, Semyonov continued,
"Energia has necessary possibilities for ensuring a minimal time of the
station's work, which we estimate at five years."

However, a representative for the Russian firm which originally built Mir
has expressed skepticism about extending the mission.

Sergey Zhiltsov, head of public relations for the Khrunichev Space Center,
told reporters at a Tokyo space conference recently that a very expensive
recertification process would be necessary to guarantee safe operations
beyond January 2001.

Previous extensions of the Mir's operating lifetime were granted after
thorough inspections and analysis, Zhiltsov said. This involved bringing
samples of the station's outer hull and other materials back to Earth.

"The Mir station is now for many people a symbol of our achievements," he
said, "but this symbol costs very much."

The Khrunichev Space Center, a government-owned facility, has prospered
from both NASA and Russian contracts for hardware for the International
Space Station. The privately-owned Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation has
received far less funding for the new project.

Any extension of Mir's life would be good news for MirCorp and for
Energia. But this could be very bad news indeed for NASA, which has counted
on Russia's undivided attention to the already-lagging International Space

The Energia company will produce two more Soyuz manned spacecraft by the
end of this year, according to independent Russian space journalist Igor
Lissov. Both are already assigned to the International Space Station.

One will carry the first long-term crew, now planned for launch in late
October. The second will stand by in case of trouble with the remote control
linkup of a new module in august.

If one of those two vehicles is diverted for use in the Mir program,
NASA's plans will have to be severely modified or even delayed again.

The Russians have also promised to send three robot supply ships to the
International Space Station by the end of the year. Their fuel supplies are
critical to keeping the station high enough to avoid falling out of orbit.

However, the Russians have already told NASA that one of the three ships
will not be delivered. If this current Mir mission leads to a permanent
reoccupation of the station by cosmonauts, even more supply ships may be
needed for Mir.

Zalyotin, who has been training as a cosmonaut since 1990, will celebrate
his 38th birthday aboard Mir on April 21. As is the right of every new
commander, he has picked a radio call sign for the crew. He will be called
Yenisey-1, after the Siberian river. Kaleri will be called Yenisey-2.

Flight engineer Kaleri will celebrate his 44th birthday aboard Mir on May
13. He has been to Mir twice before and has rung up 341 days in space. On
Apr 28, he will break the magic 'one year mark' in total space experience,
the fifteenth man in history to do so. All have been Russians.


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