'This Is A Wake'

It's 3 a.m. local time at Mission Control outside Moscow. Soon the first "impulse" will be given, and Mir will begin its irreversible descent. In the smoke-filled, crowded hallways here there is little time for sentimentality.

On other occasions over the years, the mood at Mission Control has felt like a celebration. Cosmonauts in military uniform would walk the halls proudly; engineers would mill about, slapping each other on the back, toasting their successful dockings. But now the mood is far from cheery. It feels practical and even a bit grim. This is the last night that the Russians will monitor their space station Mir. After 15 years, this is the end.

The three impulses that will force Mir toward the earth are scheduled for 3:31 a.m., 5 a.m., and then 8:07 a.m. At each impulse, when Mission Control regains radio contact with the station, we get to see a televised image of Mir's view of the earth. Ground controllers huddle over their computers or examine data sheets. Some are smoking. Others just watch, transfixed, as Mir's altitude begins to drop. The engineers, some of whom have been on duty for 37 hours, do not leave their positions, even for a moment.

4:30 a.m. Mikhail Pronin, the Russian Space Agency's chief engineer, walks about the balconies of the control rooms in a crisp suit. "We're worried," he says. "But we've made it through the first impulse. We can already breathe easier." In four and half hours, chunks of the station will come crashing into the South Pacific at approximately 500 kilometers per hour, close to the speed of sound.

"All is going strictly according to plan," says the burly Russian Space Agency chief Yuri Koptev as he takes a break in one of Mission Control's labyrinth of corridors. I ask him how he's feeling. "Look at me," he says, exhausted but smiling. "I'm feeling fine. We need to take this calmly. Mir will be remembered in history. We don't need any extra emotions."

8:07 a.m. The mood changes. There is less chatter in the hallways or in the ground-control pits. The engine thrust begins that will push Mir into free-fall. A voice over the loudspeaker shouts in Russian: "Attention! The third impulse has been given!" A dot on the Mission Control screen shows Mir passing over Italy, arcing its way over Europe toward Russia. For a few moments we can see, for the last time, Mir's view of the earth.

Then the screen turns to static, and all we can see is data about the astonishing rate at which the 137-metric-ton station is falling. At 8:20 a.m. Mir is at an altitude of 204.8 kilometers. Two minutes later, the station has fallen to 197 kilometers. At 8:48 a.m. Mir begins to burn up in the atmosphere. At 8:58 Mir is 15 kilometers above the earth.

Then there is no more information. The voice over the loudspeaker begins the epitaph. "Mir has completed its triumphal flight. Mir was the world's first international space station. Its contribution is yet to be estimated by scientists and all of mankind." Unlike previous events at Mission Control, when some technical feat was successfully completed, this time there is no applause.

Champagne bottles offered for sale at the Mission Control bar were packed away at the end of the night back into the cafe kitchen. "No one had anything to celebrate," says a cafe worker.

In a side room, a small group of Mission Control workers and officers from Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces gathers around a table. They sip coffee and nibble on chocolate cookies. They raise plastic cups filled with white wine. Their only toast is to the engineers who've spent the past 37 hours working without rest. "This is a wake," says one of the workers, "we can't toast to more than that."

9:15 a.m. Control room engineers take turns posing for group photographs in front of the Mir data screen. Their faces are proud and tired, but their smiles are understated, if there at all. Up in the balcony, where guests and journalists could watch the descent, a former cosmonaut, Gennady Strekalov, prepares to leave. For the past year he has been one of the most outspoken advocates of keeping Mir in orbit. He looks exhausted, and teary-eyed. "How else would a person feel when he sees his house burn down in front of his eyes?" he tells NEWSWEEK. He says government should follow public opinion and agree to build a Mir-2. "It's better to have our own station, to have something like Mir, which is unique." But he admits that, at least from a technical standpoint, this night was a significant accomplishment. "Mir died honorably," he says, as he walks out of the crowded room.