Status Report

MIRNEWS.484 10 October 2000

By SpaceRef Editor
October 11, 2000
Filed under

During the last weeks those interested in the
future of the MIR space station have to endure a uninterrupted stream
of meanings and comments about the future of the MIR space

Roughly this material can be divided into 2
contradicting tendenses each other. One is based on information from
MIRcorp and people who are sure that the initiative of some rich
persons in the West guarantees an extension of MIR’s
existence with at least 3 years. Regretfully this is the result of
wishful thinking.

A very important fact is that the whole
MIR-complex is property of the Russian state. To be clear: inclusive
the hard- and software on board, also all what has been brought in by
foreign users. So the Russian government is free to do all what she
wants, but is also legally responsible for all eventual calamities
caused by the station, for instance an uncontrolled entry in the
earth’s atmosphere. Russia leases the station to MIRcorp, a
private organisation of which 40% is in the hands of western
investors and 60% in those of RKK Energiya, the organisation which
thusfar solely explored and controlled the MIR station. In fact a
strange construction, as it is clear that the western part of MIRcorp
has to secure the financial basis for the commercial exploitation of
MIR. RKK Energiya wants to do all what is possible to maintain the
MIR-station, but it is a private organisation successfully operating
on the international market but nevertheless has to deal with the
everlasting struggle to survive economically and it is not in its
interest to use profits from the production of spaceflight hardware
to keep MIR alive.

When this firm was still a state enterprise
all went well and RKK Energiya made money by exploring the MIR
station: guest cosmonauts from several countries made spaceflights in
the framework of contracts between the Russian government and states
and their organisations (CNES, DLR, NASA, but also ESA) paid for such
flights and delivered the hard- and software for the experiments
executed by their ‘astronauts’.

The government of the Soviet Union and later
Russia regularly took care of extra financial support when more money
was needed. The Soviet government for instance assigned 15 million
dollars for the expedition of Helen Sharman when Mrs. Thatcher
refused to pay 20 million for the British mission and British
scientific institutes only could find 5 million for that flight. In
general, RKK Energiya could proceed with MIR without risks although
the Russian government always assisgned less than needed. Often this
scarce support caused delays (for instance the launches of modules
and necessary modifications). Sometimes certain plans could be
realised by borrowing rockets from the rocket forces.

But now the exploitation is fully commercial
and all what the Russians or their partners want to do with the
MIR-station has to be paid by MIRcorp. The station has been leased
with the purpose to made profits. MIRcorp started with the
announcement of a number of intentions but insiders immediately
stated that these were unrealistic. Examples were the use of the
MIR-station as an Internet portal, or for repairs of orbiting
satellites, advertising and the transfer of some of the
station’s modules in a ‘space hotel’
for rich tourists. The only realistic possibility was the use of the
experiment hardware in the laboratory modules with the exception of
the damaged module Spektr.

If this might give solace is in doubt for the
International Space Station derives her viability from the
continuation and the modernisation of a lot of MIR experiments and
the majority of users of ISS laboratoria will consist of former MIR
clients. But it will last a few years before the ISS will be fully
operational and MIR might be able to serve experimenters during that
interim period.

So both information streams indicate that
there are serious financial problems. In fact the persons that gave
money did not invest in the future of the MIR-station, but they paid
only to support the present existence of the MIR-complex. The first
publications mentioned lots of money to be invested in MIR, but
sponsors, generous donors and users did not show up as much as
expected and instead of hundreds of millions only sums of
approximately dozens of millions came in. MIRcorp offered shares and
recently promised to have these signed in space for the

So regretfully no substantial investments
came in and without such investments commercial initiatives do not
have a future. The payments remained limited to the costs for some
freighters and 1 manned expedition. Proudly MIRcorp published about
these payments, but to keep MIR operational much more is needed and
this is the main problem. For that the Russians need more money, so
no promises, but ‘cash’. Staffs has to be paid.
Workers of all organisations, supporting projects like MIR, for
instance the Training Centre for Cosmonauts, TsPK, near Moscow are
scandalously underpaid.

There has been word about a number of
candidates for tourist flights, but these candidates one by one cried
off except for one: Dennis Tito. This very rich citizen of the United
States, who already had a career in spaceflight, is still a serious
candidate and nowadays he is regularly present in TsPK to get
prepared for a flight. He already paid part of the amount he
promised. How much is still unclear. A few weeks ago rumoured a sum
of 22 million of the total promised 50 million dollars. Later there
were denials and the amount of 17 million showed up without a
reference how much he had promised. He refused to pay the rest after
his flight as a tourist and he demanded from the Russians the
guarantee that he would fly. For somebody from the west a reasonable
desire, but the Russians want to get the money immediately and are
reluctant to give that guarantee. So more or less a stalemate

But nevertheless his training goes on, but
this is not easy. He does not speak Russian and his only wish is to
fly as a tourist, so to see the earth from above and to play somewhat
with weightlessness. So there is no word about experiments or a
training to become a real cosmonaut. According to the most actual
information the flight of Tito will now take place not earlier than
the summer of 2001. Originally there would be a Main Expedition nr.
29 with the crew Sharipov and Vinogradov. With the relief crew for
that mission, Main Expedition nr. 30 consisting of Musabayev and
Baturin, tourist Tito would make a short flight of 10 or 14 days.
Most likely the ME 29 will be cancelled.

Meanwhile the MIR-space station has to remain
alive and measures are needed to prevent that the altitude of the
complex will be reduced too much under influence of the high solar
activity. So a freighter has to be launched to correct the orbit. The
Russian government made available such a freighter and this will be
launched from Baykonur on 15.10.2000 at 2149UTC (so for us still on
15.10, for Russia and Kazakhstan already 16.10).

So MIRcorp gets this freighter
‘free of charge’, but possibly this must not be
considered to be a little present. It is in the interest of the
Russian government to maintain a safe orbit and this freighter can
also be used if she decides to ‘dump’ the

The finances at MIRcorp’s disposal
are not sufficient to maintain the operational status of the
MIR-complex. When we speak about Russians involved in the flight of
the MIR-space station we speak about a great number of organisations,
who all need a part of that money. And as already mentioned, before
that was not such a big problem. They, in the first place RKK
Energiya always got, if needed at least somewhat from the Russian
government. These days every rubel of the budget for manned
spaceflight has to go to the Russian contribution in the ISS
according to promises made to the partners in that project. However
Putin promised to assign money for the prolongation of
MIR’s life, but thusfar he did not give a
‘kopeyk’ for that purpose. Obviously RKK
Energiya so seriously counted on this, that she recently ventilated
cries of distress tha t’unless there would be extra money,
the MIR-station had to be burnt up in the atmosphere after

Because of the fact that apart from tourism
(I leave out of consideration of some recent fantastic ideas) and
customers for experiments are not queuing no money could be found for
the continuation of the exploitation, the question is if it is
possible to make the station profitable by space tourism.

If the prices for tourist flights vary around
20 million dollar, this is impossible. For the flight of 1 tourist
combined with maintaining the operational state between tourist
flights, launches of freighters to correct the orbit for instance,
that price has to be much higher. There are more activities to be
paid: the trainings, not only of the tourists themselves, but the
cosmonauts also have to undergo an extra training and what about the
contributions in the infrastructures on earth: flight control,
communications and launch facilities. And if something special
happens, i.e. failures or emergency situations, extra money has to be

A lot of persons, responsible for Russian
manned spaceflight, like designers, constructors, heads of
departments and industries, state that Russia only can maintain her
important role as spaceflight power if she fully concentrates on the
ISS. An example is Koptev, the Head of Rosaviakosmos, the Russian
NASA. Their fear is that the goodwil they have among their partners
in the ISS will vanish if they too much cling to the maintaining of
the MIR-station.

So this all is just my opinion based on the
study of all information available, but also on that what I could
determine during my visit to Russia a few weeks ago.

Personally I would very much regret if at
short notice the MIR-exploitation would be concluded. With a lot of
effort and extra investments the station can survive for some time.
But this will be only possible if the Russian government changes her
present policy and , eventually in agreement with her ISS partners,
takes MIR under her care, assignes sufficient means for that purpose
and puts these at the disposal of RKK Energiya for a solid
exploitation and a responsible control over the MIR space station.

We, enthousiasts for manned spaceflight
don’t need to be afraid that we suffer any deficiency for
on 30.10.2000 the first main expediton to the ISS will start. The
crew consists of the American Shepherd and the Russians Gidzenko and
Krikalyov. During the flight to the ISS with the Soyuz-TM (so not yet
a Soyuz-TMA) Gidzenko will be commander of that S-TM. After ingress
of that crew into the ISS Shepherd will take over the command and
flight control for the greater part will be in the hands of Flight
Control in Houston.

Chris van den Berg, NL-9165/A-UK3202

SpaceRef staff editor.