The Mir Space Station Was a Marvel, a Clusterfuck, and an Underdog Hero
Fires, collisions, and mutant alien bacteria were all in a day’s work for Mir astronauts.
Space Station Mir. Image: NASA
The core module of the iconic Mir space station, launched 30 years ago Saturday, was a cramped living space that could barely support two cosmonauts. But over the years, the station evolved like a multicellular organism, sprouting six more pressurized limbs from the DOS-7 base block to become the largest spacefaring vessel of its day, as well as the first continuously inhabited orbital outpost in human history.
This station outlived the Soviet regime that conceived and bore it, and died in the shadow of its successor and beneficiary, the International Space Station. It was home to 104 astronauts during its 15 year lifespan, and completed its projected mission duration three times over. It was a pivotal stepping stone in human spaceflight, a technological and geopolitical bridge between millennia, and an enduring symbol of peace on Earth and off it.
It was also a notorious dump that reeked of mould, mites, and astronaut BO. British astronaut Helen Sharman, who visited the station in 1991, recalled that "the lights kept going out because it had developed so many electrical problems." British-American astronaut Michael Foale, who lived on Mir during for four months in 1997, said it was "a bit like a frat house, but more organized and better looked after."
Like some of the most beloved fictional spaceships—the Millennium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, or Serenity, for instance—Mir was simultaneously regarded as a resilient survivor and a derelict piece of junk.
"America should think twice before sending anyone else to the Mir space station, currently held together with baling wire, duct tape, and healthy doses of WD-40," reported the Deseret News in August 1997. "Space disasters should be avoided at all costs, not courted."
Indeed, the station's seemingly endless series of misadventures is jaw-dropping to revisit. Malfunctions were constant, and ranged from recurring glitches, like the flickering lights observed by Sharman, to terrifying emergency situations in which the death of crew members was only narrowly averted.
In 1994, a departing Soyuz capsule, crewed by three men, bumped into the station's Kristall module—twice. Three years later, on June 25, 1997, Mir suffered the worst space collision in history when an unmanned resupply spacecraft crashed headlong into the Spektr module, causing enormous damage, leaks, and permanent loss of habitability in the affected block.
Oh, and then there was the time that the station caught on fire, which is pretty much the most dangerous situation astronauts can face, barring errant asteroids, homicidal crew mates, or alien death rays.
The flames broke out in February 1997 when cosmonaut Alexander Lazutkin ignited a faulty oxygen-generating canister. The fire lasted for 15 minutes, according to American astronaut Jerry Linenger, and it filled the station with smoke and soot as the crew struggled to extinguish the source.
"As the fire spewed with angry intensity, sparks—resembling an entire box of sparklers ignited simultaneously—extended a foot or so beyond the flame's furthest edge," wrote Linenger in his memoir Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months on the Space Station MIR.
"Beyond the sparks, I saw what appeared to be melting wax splattering on the bulkhead opposite the blaze," Linenger continued. "But it was not melting max. It was molten metal. The fire was so hot that it was melting metal."
To make matters worse, the gas masks onboard Mir were defective, so if the crew hadn't succeeded in putting out the fire in time, some of them might have choked to death. When they finally did snuff out the flames, the station was covered in smoky debris from the accident.
"We even thought someone had switched the lights out in Kvant [module]," Lazutkin later recalled. "That's how black it was."
In the relative calm between these storms of all-out existential peril, Mir crews had to deal with a wide variety of smaller threats, like power outages, coolant leaks, computer failures, and orbital tumbling.
But perhaps most infamously, they had to coexist with the microbial astronauts who hitched rides to the station in the crew's bodies. Over the course of those 15 years in space, a steady war of attrition was waged between the crews and these mutating strains of mould and bacteria that also called Mir home.
By the time the station was finally abandoned in 2000, its degeneration into a disgusting orbital stinkbomb had become an open secret. In one particularly egregious incident in 1998, American astronauts discovered that dirty water globules—some of which were roughly the size of basketballs—were casually free-floating behind some of the station's service panels. These gross liquid orbs, which were alternately brownish or cloudy white in color, had become miniature planets of activity for the opportunistic microbes that were attempting to commandeer Mir.
"Behind the panels the temperature was toasty warm—82 degrees Fahrenheit (or 28 degrees Celsius)—just right for growing all kinds of microbeasties," wrote science journalist Trudy E. Bell in a 2007 NASA article. "[S]amples extracted from the globules by syringes and returned to Earth for analysis contained several dozen species of bacteria and fungi, plus some protozoa, dust mites, and possibly spirochetes."
The stench was reportedly atrocious, and there were serious concerns that the growing infestations would be corrosive to some of the equipment, or might infect the crew with virulent new strains of disease. Even when Mir was left to plunge to its fiery death in atmospheric reentry, some feared that these tough spacefarers might survive, and pose public health hazards.
"The mutant fungi do exist and in future they could do serious damage to humanity," said space policy journalist Yuri Karash, according to the BBC. "I don't want to be a pessimist. But the problem is there and it is a serious one."
Fortunately, civilization was not overthrown by alien mutant microbes when the remains of Mir splashed down on March 24, 2001. Perhaps that was one fitting final stroke of luck for a spacecraft that had survived countless close calls throughout its checkered history.
Indeed, the scruffy nature of Mir has become one of its most defining—and endearing—qualities in retrospect. It is legitimately astonishing that nobody was killed or seriously injured on this accident-prone ragamuffin of a station, when you consider the all the wild cards that were in play. If astronauts had died, of course, we would construct a very different legacy around its tenure in space, tempered by that grim reality.
But because Mir managed to lackadaisically extricate itself out of every scrape it got into like some spacefaring Bugs Bunny, it's now remembered as a plucky trailblazer that always beat the odds rather than the "death trap" some considered it to be at the time. We love lucky heroes, and Mir hit that archetype out of the park.
To add to that, Mir was a phenomenal success for the global spaceflight community despite all of its problems. Thousands of experiments were conducted during its stint in orbit, revealing valuable insights about the biomedical, technological, and political challenges of operating a long-term base in space.
The yields of these efforts are far too numerous to note individually, but to give you an idea of the scale of the imagination and ambition of Mir mission leads, consider that they pulled off an experiment that aimed to turn night into day on Earth by bouncing solar light off of a giant orbital mirror. The reflected sunbeam cut a path through Europe at eight meters per second, illuminating the night with transient brightness on the scale of a full Moon.
Let that sink in. Mir may have been the butt of a lot of punchlines while it was in operation, but the harvest of science we've reaped from it is no joke.
Moreover, Mir attracted a special class of hardy Russian cosmonauts that seemed to thrive in the space station's close quarters. Despite the fact that the ISS has now overtaken Mir as the longest continually inhabited space station in history, Mir's cosmonauts win hands-down in
terms of long duration spaceflight achievements.
Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov still maintains the record for the longest single spaceflight, having spent 437 consecutive days and 18 hours at the station from 1994 to 1995. While Polyakov did report mood fluctuations when he arrived at Mir and when he returned to Earth, he has not suffered any long term health effects as a consequence of his time in space.
Mir cosmonauts also hold down the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth places on the single spaceflight leaderboard (fun fact: Polyakov comes in at both first and sixth place). To put that into perspective, the ISS One Year Crew, comprised of American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, is expected to arrive home next month after 342 days in orbit. But that achievement will only nudge them into fourth place behind the insane spaceflight records left by Mir cosmonauts.
Mir's most overarching victory, however, was its focus on building a peaceful international community in space. In much the same way that its modular design formed the technological backbone of the ISS, this optimism for cross-cultural collaboration was the ideological bedrock that has matured into our modern space station.
This intent on behalf of the Soviets—then later, the Russians—to use the space station as a symbol of humanity's noblest qualities was embedded right into the mission's name. The Russian space program has always had a particular knack for coming up with concise yet semantically potent names for its programs from Sputnik, meaning "fellow traveler," to Soyuz, meaning "union."
Likewise, the word "mir" in Russian can be translated as "peace," "world," or "village," and it apparently has many subtler historical shades as well. NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, who managed the Shuttle-Mir program, laid out some of them in his 1996 essay on Mir, entitled "What's in a Name?"
"As my trips to Russia became more frequent, and my interest in the people and the culture grew, I read in Russian history about the original use of the word 'Mir,'" Culbertson says in the piece. "It meant what I think we would call a village, or even a commune, in the countryside, where all the local people lived in close or communal proximity to better share the limited resources of building supplies, food, child care, and, most critically in the harsh Russian winters, heat."
"Life in the Mir was simple, warm, supportive, and full of strong traditions and community values," he continued. "On the other hand, exclusion or expulsion from the Mir was almost certain failure or death. So the Mir was a gathering of people with common goals and values in a place where they had a better chance of surviving, living a productive life, and succeeding as a group."
"The name means 'community' to me," Culbertson concluded.
In retrospect, it seems abundantly clear that Mir lived up to its name, and all of its tendriled associations. After decades of tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, especially with regard to spaceflight efforts, Mir materialized as a tangible expression of the two nations' renewed willingness to work together. As the Iron Curtain fell, the world's first space "mir," or village, rose into the skies to replace it.
Even Linenger, who lived through what was perhaps Mir's most tumultuous period, could not resist the strong feelings of kinship, comfort, and belonging inspired by the station. Here's how he described his experience of peering into Mir while he was flying by the station in a Soyuz capsule:
"Looking into the station I could see a lone ray of light shining through the port widow and outlining the dining table," Linenger recalled. "We had left some food out for dinner. It was the only time during my stay in space that Mir looked warm, inviting, and spacious. It reminded me of opening the door to a summer cottage that been boarded up for the winter, looking inside, and seeing familiar surroundings."
Thirty years on, as Mir grows distant in our rear window, it's worth reflecting on everything it meant to its visitors, its operators, and millions of skywatchers on Earth. The station was a sophisticated laboratory, an olive branch, a frontier outpost, and an unabashed clusterfuck. Just as its name evokes a prismatic range of ideas, so too does its rich legacy as the first substantive partnership between rival spacefaring powers.
As the old Russian proverb goes: Арте́льный горшо́к гу́ще кипи́т, meaning the "an artel's pot boils denser." The English equivalent is something along the lines of "many hands make light work."
If humans truly aspire to expand civilization beyond Earth—walk the space walk, if you will—global collaboration will be essential. Mir lives on as the benchmark mission that proved it could be done.