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Mir Begins Descent, Wreckage Expected to Fall into Pacific

By Peter Baker

The space station Mir began its final, fiery plunge through the atmosphere early Friday morning, turning a milestone in human exploration into the largest piece of space junk ever to fall to Earth.

Using the engines of a cargo ship docked at the abandoned station, Russian Mission Control pointed the 135-ton complex toward the South Pacific Ocean where an estimated 25 tons of wreckage surviving reentry were supposed to drop harmlessly into the open sea somewhere between New Zealand and Chile.

The assisted suicide of the station after more than 15 years and 86,000 trips around the globe attracted great interest, and a good bit of fear, on the planet below. Despite Russian reassurances, residents of Japan and other Pacific islands were warned to stay indoors, airplane flights were rerouted and several nations deployed emergency response teams in case of disaster. A couple of dozen tuna boats in the area refused to evacuate because, they said, the fish were biting.

With the approach of splashdown, scheduled for around 9:30 a.m. Moscow time (1:30 a.m. EST), Russian controllers continued to insist that there was nothing to worry about. All systems were operating as expected during the initial phases, they said.

“We’re taking all measures to make it 100 percent safe,” mission control director Vladimir Solovyov said after the station had fallen past the point of no return. Still, he added, “Emergency situations can always happen.”

Mir ended its storied, if sometimes star-crossed, existence less than two days after the first crew of the International Space Station returned to Earth, in effect a generational baton-passing to the next orbiting home for space-faring nations. No longer able to sustain a superpower-style space program, Russia decided to bring Mir down to focus on its role in constructing the 16-nation project instead.

Since it was first launched on Feb. 20, 1986, more than 100 cosmonauts and astronauts took turns living aboard Mir, providing the first extensive understanding of long-term human habitation in space. But the station became just as well known for its many cosmic calamities: oxygen leaks, computer shutdowns, a fire and even a collision with an unmanned cargo ship.

As a result, Russian officials were determined to sink it without mishap. “We need to give a civilized end to the station and bring it down when it’s still under control,” Mikhail Sinelschikov, head of the manned flight program, said in a recent interview. “This is the last thing Mir can give to mankind -- the experience of how something like this can be brought down.”

Because the course of Mir’s life has rarely gone smoothly in recent years, Russian officials devised backup plans and took out $200 million in insurance.