The Russian Government has agreed to release funds allowing the launch of three crews to the Mir space station before its controlled re-entry in July 1999. Russian space chiefs, however, are aware that similar assurances have been made before without the money materialising.

The Russian space agency has been demanding that Moscow release funds to allow bills to be paid and future activities to proceed as originally planned. NPO Energia alone is still owed $70 million for its 1997 support for the Mir programme.

Major concern has centred on the Mir space station which, in a worst-case scenario, could be abandoned in orbit and left to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere uncontrolled, possibly showering inhabited areas of the world with debris that survives re-entry.

The launch of a new crew to the Mir scheduled for 3 August has been postponed because electricity bills have not been paid at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and other mission funds were not available.

Even the Government's latest assurance will not allow a launch on schedule. Funds are required to support two more manned missions in 1999, one that will also generate $20 million in charges paid by France to fly a cosmonaut.

Further cash is also needed for up to three more unmanned Progress vehicles which, in addition to one already attached to the Mir, will slowly reduce the perigee of Mir's orbit so that it will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at a point which ensures that any debris from the space station will fall harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.

The last Mir crew will monitor the final preparations for the station's re-entry before abandoning the station in their Soyuz TM spacecraft.

Although publicly acceding to NASA's request that Mir is abandoned before the International Space Station project begins its first manned operations, many Russian space leaders are far from happy about the situation.

"To sink such a station in 1999 is a sin," says cosmonaut Alexander Serebrov. "If this happens, not only Russia but the whole world will be left without space research for six to seven years before the ISS is fully operational," he adds.

Source: Flight International