The end is Mir ...
(CNN) -- Necessity is the mother of invention. And over the years, the Russians have had to make things last. So they do. Whether it's a Tolstoy novel, a battered Volga held together by bailing wire and duct tape, or a well lubricated multi-course meal on a cold winter night, Russian things endure ... and endure.
Their indefatigable space station Mir is no exception. Designed to last five years, it's now been more than 15 years since the first piece of the modular orbiting outpost slipped the surly bonds.
The date was February 20, 1986. The Cold War was still raging. Mikhail Gorbachev was ensconced in the Kremlin; Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office.
The world paid little notice when the Mir Core Module left the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, back in the USSR. The event was sandwiched between the Challenger explosion a month prior and the Chernobyl meltdown two months later. In between, U.S. warplanes bombed Libya in retaliation for the terrorist attack on the Achille Lauro. It was a busy time -- a frightening, busy time.
Depending on how your translate it, "Mir" means "peace" or "commune" or "world". But in those dark days you would have been forgiven if you saw some sarcasm in the Soviet sobriquet.
And yet, over the years, the station lived up to its name. Of the 104 spacefarers that knocked on Mir's door, 62 were citizens of other 11 other countries. In fact, more U.S. astronauts visited Mir (44) than Russian cosmonauts (41). Of course, the cosmonauts generally hunkered down for a much longer visit.
During its 2.2 billion-mile journey of more than 86,000 orbits, Mir served as a platform for more than 20,000 scientific experiments -- most aimed at learning more about what happens to the human body during extended bouts of weightlessness.
But Mir's salad days ended abruptly when the Soviet Union bit the dust. Lacking the rubles to keep Mir afloat (the current annual cost is $250 million) the Russians did everything they could to generate some hard currency from their hard-to-reach perch. Rockets to Mir were emblazoned with Pizza Hut logos and cosmonauts taped milk commercials, hawked watches and even appeared live in a cable shopping channel's space theme night.
Rides to Mir were sold to the highest bidder -- including a Japanese TV anchorman who spent his entire week in space yearning for a cigarette and upchucking his canned perch.
Then came the deal with the old devil. The Russian Aeronautics and Space Agency (Rosaviakosmos) made a deal with their former rivals at NASA to build a new space station together with 14 other partner nations. The first phase of that project involved a series of long-term visits by seven U.S. astronauts from 1995 through 1998.
During this time, Mir finally achieved widespread notoriety, but for reasons the Russians -- and NASA -- would just as soon forget. During the series of long-term stays at the station by U.S. astronauts, crews battled a fire, endured a collision, and coped with a series of computer glitches and air purifier failures. It was a rough start for the "shotgun" marriage between the two former space rivals.
Once the Americans and the shuttles stopped coming to Mir, it was just a matter of time before the station would be retired.
Last year, American investors established a Dutch company called MirCorp that leased the station from the Russians. They ginned up a fanciful business plan that positioned the aging station as a satellite repair shop, an Internet node, a marketing platform and a tourist destination.
In August, a California millionaire, Dennis Tito offered to pay $20 million for a visit to Mir. But while he was in training late last year, MirCorp missed some lease payments -- and its deal with the Russians unraveled.
The Russian decided it was high time to pull the plug on their little station that could -- and did -- so they could marshal scarce resources to maintain their partnership on the new international space station Alpha.
For many Russians, that gleaming new station under construction in orbit will always be "beta."
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN.com
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