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Mission to Mir Under Way

A cargo ship bound for the Russian space station Mir blasted off from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 16.37 Greenwich Mean Time today. The launch, which came only after emergency negotiations had cleared up a Russian-Kazakh conflict over use of the launch site on Wednesday, may have averted a possible disaster. The Progress M42 craft will deliver water and food that will allow Mir's three-man crew to complete their mission, as well as navigation instruments to help keep the aging station from plummeting to Earth when the cosmonauts vacate it next month.

Kazakhstan, which inherited Baikonur when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, had banned all launches after a Proton rocket carrying a Russian satellite exploded shortly after take off on 5 July, sending debris over a large area--including one 200-kilogram chunk that landed in a woman's vegetable garden in the village of Karbushevka. Kazakh officials claimed the area had been contaminated with toxic fuel. The incident further soured Kazakh-Russian relations already under pressure by Russia's failure to pay Baikonur's $115 million annual rent.

Since then, general-director Yuri Koptev of the Russian Space Agency (RSA) has visited the area and promised the garden's owner $1000 in compensation, while an official investigation found no proof of widespread pollution. On Wednesday, Russia agreed to pay up $50 million of its debt by the end of July and the rest in industrial goods by early 2000.

The agreement came just in time, as there is a brief time window for launching a mission to Mir between today and Sunday. Failure to lift the ban would have created a "very unpleasant situation," says Koptev, in which the crew might have had to abandon the station for lack of water, leaving it spinning out of control. "It would have put any territory over which it flies under the threat of a catastrophe," says Koptev.

Russia hasn't yet decided what to do with Mir, but RSA says the new instruments should allow ground control to keep the station aloft for a while after 23 August, when the last crew is scheduled to leave.