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[FOUNTAIN] Deep-Sixing the Mir Space Station

Feb 10,2001
After Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II, fierce competition erupted among the Allied Powers to take advantage of the expertise of German scientists. The United States and Soviet Union, especially, became desperate to win the heart of Doctor Wernher Von Braun, who developed Germany's most advanced V2 rockets.

The V2 rocket research institute, located in Peenemunde, a sea village in northeastern Germany, came under the control of the Soviet Union army. But Mr. Von Braun fled to the area occupied by the U.S. army immediately before Soviet Union soldiers marched in, giving the United States the best of them all. Many people predicted that the United States would certainly beat the Soviet Union in the post-war competition in space exploration, the driving forces of which were the former German scientists and their technological know-how.

Dashing these expectation, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, on October 4, 1957, winning the first round of competition in space exploration. The United States, shocked by what was then considered a monumental feat, orbited its first satellite, Explore I, in a hurry the following year. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established to compete with the Soviet Union, but the U.S. lagged in space exploration until the Apollo XI landed on the moon in 1969.

After the moon landing, the two countries were in a tug-of-war in various fields of space exploration, including space stations, reusable craft like the space shuttle and mars exploration, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, after which the United States accelerated its dominance. There is one field in space exploration in which the Russians have excelled - manned space stations. The space station Mir, launched into Earth orbit in February 1986, exemplifies Russia's mastery of space habitation. More than 100 astronauts and scientists from 11 countries have boarded Mir, conducting more than 16,000 experiments in space. Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov lived in Mir 438 days, setting the record in 1993 for the longest stay in space.

Despite such a remarkable accomplishment, Russia, burdened with an annual maintenance fee of $200 million to keep the aged space station in the orbit, seems determined to place it on the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean near Australia. A deteriorating orbit poses the threat of a 130-ton steel structure crashing into a populated area.

At the end of last month, a spacecraft was launched to guide Mir safely to Earth. Russians are reportedly reluctant to bury Mir, a source of pride since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like any individual Russia must establish priorities for its resources.

by Yoo Jae-sik




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