Today is the eighth anniversary of the end of the Mir space station. That Friday in 2001 was a technical success for the Russians, who safely planned and implemented a controlled re-entry of a major orbiting platform weighing several hundred tons.
Though often overlooked in the West, the end of the Mir space station was also a policy victory for Russian space officials. Despite concerns from NASA, the Russian community was prepared with a special Progress cargo ship, stuffed with fuel that allowed the Mission Control team at TSUP in Korolev, Russia, to assure a harmless re-entry over the South Pacific.
Contrast this to how NASA handled the end of our first space station, the Skylab. The far smaller platform tumbled into an uncontrolled re-entry in July of 1979 due to a spectacular failure in policy that permitted us to launch and operate a man-tendered space station whose future and eventual safe re-entry was dependent upon the timely inauguration of a planned new fleet of American manned launch vehicles. Remaining Apollo parts were donated to museums. The final flight-ready Apollo was used for the political Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous. Congress lost the will and turned its attention to the promised shuttle fleet.
The space shuttles were years late, thus setting the stage for the Skylab debacle. By the time of STS-1, in April of 1981, NASA was again clamoring for its own space station, this time one dependent on a manned launch vehicle completely incapable of meeting the operational requirements desired by Congress and NASA.
It seems a sadly familiar pattern in U.S. space policy - overreaching by ambitious Congressional and aerospace supporters; inability to commit, loss of interest once a new program is underway.
And today? Past remains prologue. The space shuttle fleet is being (correctly) retired, leaving us unable to fulfill our international obligations for the International Space Station. Congressional space supporters are instead turning their attention to the Return to the Moon. Forgotten is the decades of promises on industry utilization of the space station platform.
Let us endeavor not to promise or commit to any further space obligations until we understood well the date of the inaugural flight of the space shuttle follow-on. Until then, let’s focus on achieving what has already been paid for by the American taxpayer.
As for that Mir space station, once ridiculed by so many in the West as nothing more than a tin can: It grew stubbornly and resolutely through the break-up of the Soviet Union, an economic depression, lack of federal funding and a determined effort by NASA to assure its end. It was humanity’s first permanent home in space, a place were space travelers from dozens of nations worked and lived in the low Earth orbit. Once a symbol of Soviet might, it morphed into a shining example of space commercialization and international cooperation. Take a moment today and pay tribute to the forgotten men and women who kept her flying and laid her to rest with justified pride.