19 February 2008

The little station that could

On this date in 1986, Russia launched the Mir space station.

First of all, I'd like to apologize for the long delay in getting back to this blog. It's been a very busy month, and I promise to be more consistent.

Now that the International Space Station is up and running, and Mir is no longer in the news (not to mention the skies), it's easy to forget its importance. Mir was no less than mankind's first long-term step into space, the first time that our voyages beyond our planet became more than just voyages. It was the first place that we as humans truly lived in space.

For just short of ten years, Mir orbited the Earth. That is still the record for longest continuous human habitation in space. It was host to 39 visiting spacecraft, including nine visits by the American space shuttle, and another benchmark of its place in history were these nine times when the old Cold War enemies met in the vacuum of space, not just peacefully, but cooperatively and for mutual benefit. Citizens of twelve nations were at one time or another aboard the station, making it the first international space station, before that name was taken officially.

Mir came down in 2001, the victim not of a failure of engineering, like the U.S. spy satellite on its way to Earth as I write this, but a lack of funding. I for one was sad to see the pictures of its burning end in the sky about the South Pacific. It was like seeing the Spirit of St. Louis destroyed, or Magellan's ship. I will always stand by my idea that Mir was one of the best things humanity ever made, and no matter how many generations of space station come after, no matter how advanced or commonplace they become, this will always be the station that started our life beyond Earth.

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