The final defiant symbol of the ailing Soviet Space Program was also one of its most extraordinary achievements. The Mir Space Station, which was in orbit between 1986 and 2001, straddled both the demise of the Soviet Union and a Russian rebirth – a station that remained in space three times longer than first planned.
The name Mir means ‘peace’ in Russian, and despite its launching at a time of frostiness during the Cold War, it did eventually become a symbol of remarkable cooperation, not just between Russia and the United States, but also involving numerous other countries around the world.
This was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in space and many of the experiments done on Mir, particularly on microgravity, paved the way for future stations, namely the International Space Station which was launched just a few years before Mir was deorbited.
The fact that this station remained in space for so long was remarkable in itself, with Mir suffering numerous accidents, system failures and near misses that could so easily have ended in tragedy. Yet time and time again, Mir was patched up and continued on. Only in 2001, did the final remnants of this giant of the skies come hurtling through our atmosphere during its final dramatic death throes.
It’s difficult to say where exactly humanity is going in terms of space stations and exploration further out into the universe, but whatever happens in the future, the Mir Space Station was one of the most important initial steps forward.
The Mir Space Station was officially authorized in 1976 as the Soviet Union sought to improve upon their Salyut Space Station Programme. These are generally considered the first space stations, with Salyut 1 launching in 1971, followed by three more successful launches before Mir.
These were a far cry from what we might imagine a space station to be with the small Salyut having a total length of just 15.8 metres (51.8 ft) but was composed of five components: a transfer compartment, the main compartment, two auxiliary compartments, and the Orion 1 Space Observatory. The Salyut stations may seem rudimentary now, but they very much laid the foundations for what Mir would become.
Early plans called for Mir’s core module, DOS-7, to have four docking points, similar to the Salyut stations, but with four more added via a docking sphere at the front of the station. These docking points would act as connecting joints where further modules could be added. However by 1978, when plans had been finalised, Mir had been redesigned with one aft port and five in a spherical compartment at the front of the station.
The next few years saw plenty of design changes as Soviet engineers wrestled with the complexities of what they were attempting to do. It was eventually decided that Mir would be built around the 22-short-ton space station module based on the TKS spacecraft, a resupply spacecraft designed in the late 1960s.
Things really got going in the early 1980s, but in 1984 all work on Mir stopped as Soviet authorities chose instead to focus all of their attention and resources on the Buran Space Program, which was the developing the Buran spacecraft – an excellent space shuttle spin-off that unfortunately never made it into space, but fortunately for you watching, we have covered here on Megaprojects just in case you’re interested.
These were times of fine margins in the USSR with the once-great Soviet machine beginning to cough and splutter. Building the Buran alone had put a huge strain on the Space Program and Mir, even though it would become one of the most famous names in space history, had to wait for the time being.
Scrambling to Launch
Now, as anybody who knows anything about the Soviet Union will tell you, they were rather partial to the odd hugely ambitious deadline, which frequently left those working towards it gasping in horror.
And so it was with the Mir Space Station after those higher up decreed that it must be orbiting the Earth by early 1986 – which conveniently was just before the 27th Communist Party Congress. As the date neared, it was clear that the planned processing flow wouldn’t be met in time and the entire structure was shifted to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan to speed things up.
After arriving on-site on 6th May 1985, the first module underwent some intense alterations to have it ready by the end of the year. In October communication tests began and by mid-February, it appeared as if they might actually be able to get the structure into space in time.
On 19th February, three days after a failed launch, a Proton K rocket, with Mir’s core module strapped to its back, blasted clear from Baikonur. The manic effort to get the space station into orbit before the party congress had been achieved – with just six days to spare.
The Mir Space Station was a structure that was almost constantly evolving and it wasn’t until 1996, a full decade after the DOS-7 launch, that things were deemed complete. To really put that in perspective, the space station only remained operational for a further five years after that.
The first piece of this space station jigsaw puzzle was the DOS-7, also known as the core module or base block. While the structure was very similar to what had been used for the Salyut stations, there was much more emphasis placed on livability than its predecessors.
It was 13.13 metres (43 ft) in length with a diameter of 4.15 metres (13.6 ft) and a wingspan of 20.73 metres (68 ft) when the two arrays were fully extended, with a total solar cell area across the two of 76 sq metres (818 sq ft). These cells could generate up to 9-10 kilowatts at 28.6 volts, while the module itself came with two liquid-propellant engines with 300 kg (661 lbs) of thrust each.
Inside, there was a habitable area of 90 m3 (3,178 ft3) – which is the volume of around 8 concrete mixer trucks – with a lavatory, two cabins for sleeping and the small degree of privacy that can be afforded while you’re drifting around in space, entertainment including movies and music, exercise equipment, and medical equipment.
From here, six further modules were gradually added over the following ten years as the form of the Mir Space Station slowly appeared.
The Kvant-1 module was the first to be added in 1987 and included two pressurised working compartments and one unpressurised experiment compartment. If the first module had been human friendly, the second was all about science and was used to research the physics of active galaxies, quasars and neutron stars, with the help of its X-ray astronomy telescope, an ultraviolet telescope, a magnetic spectrometer and an electrophoresis unit. It was launched on 31st March 1987 and docked just over a week later on 9th April.
The Kvant-2 module docked with Mir on 6th December 1989, and could be divided into three sections; an extravehicular airlock, used for spacewalks, an instrument/cargo compartment and an instrument/experiment compartment. It also came with the new Salyut 5B computer, which took over operations of the more basic Argon 16B that had been used since 1986, a system to regenerate water from urine and showers for the first time – though I’m immediately suspicious of the shower water – but hey, I guess when you’re in space, sometimes you just need to shower in your own urine – or rather what used to be your urine.
The fourth module was the Kristall which was a multipurpose laboratory for technology and material processing experiments. These included a small greenhouse for plant cultivation experiments, various electrical furnaces that could produce small quantities of crystals and others focused on semiconductor production experiments. There was also the Ainur biological research unit for experiments with electrophoresis – which involves the movement of particles in fluid or gel using an electric field.
The fourth instalment of this growing space station was launched on 31st May 1990 and successfully docked on June 10th. Now, this was by no means as far as things would go, with a further three modules still to come, but it’s worth pausing briefly here because as the 1990s began, the world was about to change dramatically.
End of an Era
Up until the early 1990s, the Mir Space Station had been a staunchly Soviet affair. The only ships that visited were Soviet and the overwhelming majority of those on board were either Soviet or from Soviet-allied countries, but eventually, France and India were also included in the Interkosmos Program, which was set up to allow astronauts from other nations to visit Mir. By the late 1980s, this had included one Syrian, one Bulgarian, one Afghani and one Frenchmen.
But then things completely changed on Christmas Day1991, when the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, to be replaced by the tricolour of the Russian Federation. In an instant, the Mir Space Station had a new owner – and that owner was immediately struggling financially.
I won’t delve into the complexities of Russian financial woes post-Soviet Union, suffice to say that it wasn’t pretty. The country was battling inflation and empty shelves, which must have seemed far more pressing at the time than expanding the Mir Space Station. Two planned missions, along with two further modules were cancelled, as the country struggled to get back to its feet. It is worth remembering that Mir was continuously inhabited throughout its life, meaning that Soviet cosmonauts were on board when the vast experiment in communism came crashing down. It’s not exactly clear how or how much was divulged to those onboard at the time, but I’m sure they started to get the idea when further cancellation came up. If only the Russians could find a wealthy backer with plenty of seasoned space travel experience.
On 17th June 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President George H. W. Bush announced a collaboration between the two once hated enemies that would eventually morph into the Shuttle-Mir Program, which included 11 different missions between 1993 and 1998. This was seen as ‘Phase 1’ of a two-part program, with the second eventually being the construction of the International Space Station.
This was a time of glorious friendship and collaboration after the 45-year Cold War standoff that had consumed much of the world and there were numerous important milestones achieved during this time, including the first American astronaut to be launch aboard a Soyuz Russian spacecraft, the largest spacecraft ever to have been assembled at that time in history, the first American to visit Mir, and the first American spacewalk using a Russian Orlan spacesuit. What had been a uniquely Soviet undertaking, soon came with living quarters specifically for the Americans – it was as if the Russians had decided to rent out the downstairs flat to make a bit of money – and by a bit of money, I mean around $1.5 billion throughout the program – around $2.6 billion today.
Three further modules were added after the end of the Soviet Union, starting with Spektr, which docked with Mir on 1st June 1995. This was a module that had remained unfinished as the Soviet Union ended and the Americans offered to aid in the completion in return for space for 600 kg (1,322 lbs) of US experiments onboard. It came with the living quarters for American astronauts and was mainly used for remote observations of Earth’s environment using its atmospheric and surface research equipment. It also included two further solar arrays, which eventually provided about half of the station’s power.
To accommodate further visits by NASA spacecraft, the sixth module installed on Mir was the Mir Docking Module, which was launched with the Space Shuttle Atlantis on 12th November 1995, making it the first non-Soviet or Russian ship to carry up components to Mir. The new module was 4.7 metres (15.4 ft) in length with a diameter of 2.9 metres (9.5ft) and weighed around 4.3 tons. It was attached to the Kristall module and acted as a sparkling new front door for the Mir Space Station.
The final addition was the Priroda module which docked with Mir on 26th April 1996. Primarily it was used to conduct Earth resource experiments through remote sensing while developing and verifying remote sensing methods. Equipment on board included a DOPI interferometer, used to study gases and aerosols, a Centaur 400 MHz receiver, used to gather ocean buoy data and an Ikar Delta scanning microwave radiometer system, along with countless others.
When the Priroda module docked and the final nuts and bolts had been tightened, after ten years, the Mir Space Station had reached its final size.
Life on Mir
In total, 104 individuals visited Mir, over 39 crewed missions, including 30 Soyuz flights and 9 Space Shuttle flights. The periods spent at the station varied wildly, ranging from 70 days to Valeri Polyakov’s 14-month stay beginning in January 1994, which remains a record for time spent in space.
Days on board the station generally followed a similar pattern. Wake up at 8, with two hours for personal hygiene and breakfast immediately after. Between 10 am and 1 pm was the first of two working periods, either with experiments or maintenance, followed by one hour of exercise and one hour for lunch. There were another three hours of work in the afternoon, along with another hour of exercise, with dinner served around 8 pm.
In the evening, those onboard were free to do as they wished, which often involved reading, watching movies, writing letters, or communicating with those on Earth using the station’s ham radio, which they could use to chat with amateur radio operators down on our planet.
If that sounds like quite a bit of exercise for a space station, it was a vital part of maintaining health. Muscle atrophy and the deterioration of the skeleton are both serious effects of long-term weightlessness that can be counteracted in part with exercise. Hence why Mir came with two treadmills and a stationary bicycle, with those onboard required to cycle 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) and run 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) each day.
The cuisine onboard the Mir Space Station wasn’t exactly the finest but kept the cosmonauts going with a carefully planned diet of 100 g of protein, 130 g of fat and 330 g of carbohydrates per day, usually in the form of reheated or canned goods. Tea, coffee and fruit juices were common, with the occasional Vodka or Cognac for special occasions.
As the Mir Space Station stretched well past her intended lifespan, cracks began appearing, which included frequent computer crashes, loss of power, uncontrolled tumbles through space and leaking pipes. Often these could be patched up, but there were several instances when the fate of the station hung in the balance.
The first major incident was a collision between the Kristal module and the Soyuz TM-17 spacecraft in January 1994, but this was nothing compared to what unravelled on 23rd February 1997 during the EO-23 mission. A malfunctioning Vika system, a chemical oxygen generator, led to a small fire aboard Mir – which officially lasted for just 90 seconds, but unofficially, according to a man on board at the time, lasted for 14 minutes and led to Mir filling with smoke for around 45 minutes. After scrambling to put on gas masks, the crew found some to be broken, while some of the fire extinguishers mounted on the walls couldn’t actually be removed. Russia later stated that the cosmonauts had successfully extinguished the fire, but the word on the grapevine was that the fire had in fact burnt itself out and Mir had had a very lucky escape.
Perhaps there was something about this particular mission, because an unmanned cargo spacecraft, Progress M-34, later slammed into the Spektr module and punctured it while practising a new docking maneuver. Once again, sirens began blaring onboard the Mir Space Station as it began to rapidly depressurize. Just in time, cosmonauts were able to seal off Spektr, which led to a dramatic reduction of power across the whole station.
It was a minor miracle that Mir had survived for so long, but by the late 1990s, with work on the International Space Station pushing well ahead, the clock was ticking. Money was always a huge factor and when the Russian Space Agency confirmed they would not fund Mir past June 1999, there was only one option, the station would have to be deorbited, meaning it would enter our atmosphere where most of it would burn up.
There seemed to have been a brief reprieve where it looked like Mir might be sold to a private investor, but to no avail. The last few missions involved those onboard slowly removing equipment and sending it back down to Earth as Mir prepared for the end. On 28th August 1999, the final crew left Mir, bringing an end to a run of continuous occupation which had lasted for eight days short of ten years.
On 23rd March 2001, the end came for the Mir Space Station. Over a course of three stages, the vast bulk inched closer to Earth until it experienced atmospheric reentry 05:44 UTC near Nadi in Fiji. Images of the station’s remnants could be seen illuminating the sky before crashing into the South Pacific Ocean around 06:00 UTC.
The Mir Space Station had ended its life as a geriatric danger, but that shouldn’t detract from what an enormous contribution to space travel it made. More than 23,000 experiments were conducted on Mir during its lifespan which dramatically furthered our understanding of living in space.
While there were smaller modules that were technically classified as space stations before, Mir was the first to put it all together and combine numerous modules. This was a seismic leap forward that eventually led to the International Space Station and at a time when the world still remained hugely polarised during the final stages of the Cold War, it became an extraordinary symbol of peace and cooperation that would have been unheard of just a decade before.