A New Lease on Mir's Life

Like Rasputin, Mir never seems to die. The 14-year-old space station is again open for business, after a 7-month hiatus, and a Netherlands-based company called Mir Corp. is eager to offer the orbiting facility for scientific use--and ultimately for visits by rich tourists.

Two cosmonauts have been aboard Mir since 6 April, checking life-support systems, fixing a small leak, and preparing to conduct a batch of Russian scientific experiments. The flight was paid for by Mir Corp., which is funded by wealthy U.S. investors, and Energia, Russia's largest space company, which operates Mir on behalf of the Russian government.

Many NASA officials would prefer to see Mir shut down permanently so that Russia could concentrate on building its portion of the long-delayed international space station (ISS). But Mir Corp. president Jeffrey Manber says that keeping Mir going will not divert Russian government spending from the international facility. He adds that some companies and governments have set aside money to conduct experiments on the ISS, but can't do them because of the delays; Mir Corp. can step into that breach. "There is already equipment on Mir which can be used very cost effectively," Manber says. But to make money, Manber adds that the company hopes eventually to send paying tourists to the station--for tens of millions of dollars a ride.

On the current mission, the cosmonauts will study plasma-dust structures in microgravity, examine ways to spot seal failures in space equipment, take digital photos of Earth from Mir's portholes, along with dozens of other experiments, most of which will use existing equipment. In the fall, Manber says he hopes a new team of cosmonauts will conduct experiments on behalf of Western scientists. He concedes that "there's a tough road ahead when it comes to newcomers," given the uncertainty of the station's future. But for now, at least, Mir is proving that space stations have many lives.