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Special Event

Mir Falls to Earth

Aired March 23, 2001 - 0:00 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, HOST: The view from Mir during its first burn 4 1/2 hours ago. And an hour later, rocket firing number two. All is still going well. And now, we're just seven minutes away from the so- called death burn, the most critical step in bringing the Mir space station safely back to Earth.

For our viewers watching worldwide on CNN and CNN International, I'm O'Brien at the CNN Center in Atlanta. And for the next hour and a half, we'll bring you a special report as we monitor Mir's fall to Earth.

It's been an uneventful night in the sense that everything has gone according to plan at Russian mission control just outside Moscow. First, the first rocket firing went off without a hitch. The second one went off without a hitch. All that remains now within seven minutes from now is the final burn, the burn that will send Mir on a trajectory that will lead it down to this spot that is marked in red.

This is the zone where it is being sent toward by those Russian mission controllers. And by all accounts and by everything we have seen thus far tonight, Mir, which is currently over Africa, steaming along at 17,500 miles an hour, is about to begin its last orbit and is about to end it right where the line ends right there. That is at 47 degrees south, 140 degrees -- excuse me, 47 degrees west, south 140 degrees west. Excuse me for the confusion on the latitude and longitude.

Watching it all throughout the night here in Russian mission control is our Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty, and she has the latest from there as we continue on toward this final chapter, sort of a three-act play which will bring Mir to its conclusion -- Jill.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, well, Miles, you know, if you look down on the floor here, perhaps a little far down there, but you can really see that there are a lot of people moving into the mission control. Many of them cosmonauts, former cosmonauts, people who built the Mir back 15 years ago, people who were in charge of keeping in touch with it as it went around its orbits, actually 86,000 orbits around the Earth, two million miles. So there are a lot of memories from people here who are very proud of what the Mir did.

There's a sadness, too. I was speaking to some people who said -- I said, "Congratulations. Things seem to be going smoothly." And they said, "Actually, you should be saying condolences, because this is it for Mir." They think of it really as almost their child. It was something that they created, something that they were proud of, and now, they have to kill it, actually, by sending it into the Pacific Ocean.

Things are going pretty smoothly. Miles, you were showing the map, but over here, you can see the path, the trajectory there. It will be going over the southern part of Russia and then down on into the Pacific Ocean.

Coming up in a few minutes will be the really critical part of all of this, and that is the last burn when they turn on the thrusters on the progress M15 and maneuver it into what they hope will be the lower orbit that will take it down through the atmosphere burning up a lot of it and about 27 tons falling into the Pacific if everything goes OK.

O'BRIEN: All right, we are now four minutes away from the beginning of that last burn, which will last about 20 minutes. And Jill, I'm just curious. All those people that have day in and day out, week in and week out over the past 15 years or so come to work in that control room, what will they be doing now?

DOUGHERTY: Well, some of them said that they will be moving over into other projects that will be associated with space. Certainly, there's the ISS. I don't know specifically whether all of these people will be working on it, but they seem to think that they will be moving on to other things. Many of them actually, though, have -- are a little bit older. They've been working -- they were senior people when they were working on the Mir, and now, 15 years later, they're really getting up in age and perhaps ready to retire. But all of them very proud of the work that they did. And especially the role that Russia played in leading the space race. At that point, it was a space race during the Cold War.

Now they feel that they're part of the international space station, but as many of them said, "It's not ours. It's not Russian. It's international." And they feel somewhat of a loss, Miles, about that.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jill Dougherty at the place they call TsUP, where the soup is on, so to speak. We'll be checking in with her in just a few moments.

Inside three minutes now to the beginning of that final rocket engine firing burn in rocket science parlance. And it's kind of difficult to track something like the Russian space station Mir. After all, it circles the globe every 90 minutes. We don't have a camera up there of our own to view it, but we do have the next best thing. We have some software from a company called Analytical Graphics, which gives us a 3-D rendering of what Mir is doing at any given moment using the fundamental telemetry, the physics behind what is happening right now. Hank Grabowski is with Analytical Graphics.

Walk us through kind of the representation that we have and what we'll be seeing as we go through the final phases here. HANK GRABOWSKI, ANALYTICAL GRAPHICS: Well, what we're going to see, if all things go well, as we kind of had the system re-orient itself. What they're going to be trying to do is they're going to try to optimize the attitude or the orientation of the space station for the burn -- for the beginning of this burn.

This burn's going to have two parts to it. The first part's going to have all the engines firing. That's going to be for about half the burn. The second half of the burn, they're going to run out of fuel for the main engines. They're just going to be burning for the outer ring of engines on the progress module.

We should be seeing the engines firing and we'll see the attitude change as it's swinging through the orbit. And then we'll be able to see engine cutoff. This software driving a 3-D view. We have the 2-D view as well; we'll be able to see where it is at all the points in time on the 2-D map as well.

O'BRIEN: Why don't you zoom out and give people a sense of the power of this software? Here we are in a close-up of Mir. In very short order, we can get a sense of where the space station is as it passes over the globe, the so-called ground track.

And we are now one minute away from that final burn, that final rocket firing as we bring Mir down to more than a dot. I'm going to give Hank time to let his computer catch up. And there it goes. We've got a lot of software we're processing there. And as you see, Mir is approaching the Russian land mass, and that's where the action begins, because Mir is controlled strictly by ground stations. Those ground stations are where those commands are issued, and that is where Mir needs to be for things to happen.

Let's check in quickly with Norm Thagard as we go 30 seconds to the burn.

Norm, what are your thoughts at this point? Thirty seconds away from this final death throes of Mir.

NORM THAGARD, FMR. NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, I was thinking 22 billion miles, I think it was, over 15 years. That would take you pass Uranus if you're going in a straight line. I had 46 million miles. Now it's all going to come to an end, and none of us got a single mile of frequent flier.

O'BRIEN: All right, Norm Thagard, that puts that into some perspective. Let's go right to mission control with Jill Dougherty and give you a sense of the burn, which should be beginning as we speak.

Jill, do you have confirmation as we look at some of the controllers, as you said, who have been there for many, many years now?

DOUGHERTY: They did just announce that that will be coming up, as you said, in just a couple of second, 19 more seconds. And then, of course, the burn has to -- it will be lasting for about 19 minutes, a little over that. And what they will be trying to do is figuring out whether -- what -- whether they have done what they planned to do, which is to bring it down into this lower rotation around the Earth and then into the ocean.

The burn has started now, we understand. And they will be hoping that all goes according to plan. As you -- Miles, you know, as we've been reporting, three burns. And this one is really the most powerful. It's shorter than all the rest but it is more powerful. And the hope is that it will push it right down into the ocean where they want it to go.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's take a look at the 3-D animation from Silicon Graphics. As we look at the somewhat crestfallen faces of the controllers, we'll go back to that in a moment. This is the business end of that progress rocket we were telling you about. The progress that is up there was specially outfitted with fuel. It's almost all fuel tanks because the margins for fuel were so narrow on this, they needed to add some extra fuel on it.

What is happening right now is the main engines as well as some peripheral or ancillary engines are burning simultaneously right now in the opposite direction, as you can see, of the flight of Mir. And this is going to provide a breaking maneuver of about 23 meters per second. I believe that is a correct number. And that equates to about a 50-mile-an-hour drop. Fifty miles an hour compared to 17,500 doesn't sound like much, but when you're talking about the world of orbital mechanics, it's just enough to do the job to allow Mir to drop low enough over the South Pacific, which, after all, is going to be on the other side of where this is all happening, the other side of the planet.

Let's turn it now to our expert on these issues. Mike Fudge is with a company called ITT Industries. He works in the commercial satellite realm and studies the issue of orbital debris and reentry.

Mike, the fact that this burn is happening with the main engines for a portion of the time and then some other engines for the remainder, just try to decipher that for us. Why is it happening this way?

MICHAEL FUDGE, ITT INDUSTRIES: Well, Miles, the reason is that they do not have cross-feed capability between the tanks and this progress M1 vehicle. What you have is a system where the tank that feeds the main engine only draws from that tank, and then the tanks that feed the auxiliary engines just draw from those tanks and one cannot use the other. So therefore, they want to get, you know, to be a bit colloquial here, the most bang for their buck. So they use the main engine and they will burn that to depletion, and then they will burn -- they continue burning the smaller engines until they are also depleted.

O'BRIEN: All right, so basically, you've got two separate fuel tanks. You cannot share the fuel, so you're going to use both and use it wisely. And what that brings out as we turn to one of our other experts, Jim Oberg, a noted expert on the Soviet and Russian space program. What that leads you to believe, and as I think an accurate assessment as we see him looking as if he's inside part of a villain's set from one of the old "Batman" series years ago. He's actually inside a Mir core model, one of three built. This one happens to be in the Wisconsin Dells, and that's a long story. We're not going to talk about that right now -- maybe later.

The point is, Jim, the margin for error here is the issue we need to consider here. You feel comfortable with it?

JIM OBERG, RUSSIAN SPACE ANALYST: Well, I feel comfortable, Miles, because this burn has a big target: the Pacific Ocean. If they get all the propellant burned out, they're going to get enough breaking that they're definitely going to hit right where they're aiming. They might hit a little short, might hit a little long. Right now, though, they're committed. And it's going to come in.

If something happens now and the burn stops or if the station drifts out of its pointing, then they're not going to get the full breaking thrust. They're going to go long. But everything indicates that the station is doing just what they want it to do. It's going to drop right in the Pacific into a waiting group of witnesses out there. We'll talk about that later on. A lot more folks are going to see it after it goes beyond the range of Russian tracking.

O'BRIEN: I've got to admit, Jim Oberg, as you mention that and we talk about that group, by the way, we can show you their Web site is the Mirreentry.com, folks. They have a charter staged out there and they are actually going to attempt to fly near where Mir is coming down. And we can predict that that's going to happen now in about an hour's time, maybe a little more than an hour.

Norm Thagard, as...

OBERG: It's not just them, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Say that again, sir.

OBERG: It's not just them. There's a fishing fleet out there. There are the people up range in Fiji who will probably see the Mir flaming overhead. And there's a real big U.S. Space Command radar on Kwajalein Island, which will get the last really good look at the Mir as it's descending into the impact.

O'BRIEN: All right, so there are some eyes out there.

Norm Thagard, do you wish you were among them?

THAGARD: Well, I do. And it's kind of sad, really. But the Russians did a tremendous job with that station and it's paved the way for the international space station. I think they can be proud. It is the end of an era, but it was a job well done I think for the most part.

O'BRIEN: Should be a spectacular light show.

Jim Oberg, if you were out there, is it possible -- as I was talking to Norm Thagard earlier about this. Back in the Skylab days, some folks who actually witnessed that reentry in western Australia said they heard multiple sonic booms as those pieces came in at that high, high speed. Is that possible, do you think, that people could hear that this evening or late afternoon there?

OBERG: Oh, absolutely. It's late afternoon or early evening there. People are going to hear it, especially those fishing boats, those albacore tuna boats, which are spread over the impact area, have decided not to get out of the way. They got their video cameras out, and they're also going to be watching the skies.

As these particles, as these big objects come in at high speed and as they fall below the speed of sound, we're having these sonic booms from the different pieces. There'll be a rolling thunder from the sky. We'll see these fiery objects passing in a train, like in a train of formation flying UFOs right across Fiji heading southeast into the South Pacific.

O'BRIEN: A light show like no other, a fireworks display perhaps like no other. Jim Oberg, Norm Thagard, Jill Dougherty, Mike Fudge, stand by. We're just getting started here.

We do want to talk about some other aspects of this, and that's the fear-and-loathing aspect, if you will. How is Mir's descent affecting people in Japan, for example? The government is asking people there to stay indoors as a precaution.

Here's CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon with that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On its way down, this 15-year-old space station is expected to pass over Japan before its fiery fragments splash down in the South Pacific. Scientists at Japan's National Space Development Agency have been tracking Mir's progress, hoping its controlled entry will not fail.

"If something as heavy as Mir falls into a heavily populated area, that would be a disaster," says scientist Mikio Sawabe. That's why crisis management is important.

The head of Japan's defense forces postponed a trip to the United States just in case anything goes wrong.

(on-camera): The chances of any part of Mir coming down on Japanese heads are less than one in 100 million. But still, they're not zero, and that's enough to make the public here uneasy.

(voice-over): The remote chance of disaster has been a frequent theme in local media reports.

"I worry about it when I watch TV," says this young man.

This man says, "We can't just cover our heads with our hands and hope Mir doesn't hit us. I want the government to show some leadership." Most Japanese feel leadership is in short supply these days. They point to how Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori chose to continue his golf game after hearing news that a U.S. Naval submarine had struck the Japanese training ship, Ehime Maru.

But for Japan's space enthusiasts, Mir's splashdown is cause for excitement, not worry. Staff at a Tokyo-based space magazine have been busy capturing images of the Russian space station in its final days.

"Our fans understand there's almost no possibility Mir will hit Japan," says Mir expert Shusako Tago (ph). What Japan is more likely to get, he says, is a front-row seat for an unprecedented event.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MACKINNON: Now if all goes as planned with the final burn, Mir is expected to cross over western part of Japan near Hiroshima in approximately 10 to 15 minutes. The residence there have been told to be careful, although it now turns out that they have not been given an official warning by local governments to stay inside. However, there is an emergency center here in Tokyo, the central government paying very close attention to the situation in case anything goes wrong and ready to issue further instructions to residents if anything changes.

Now if anything were to go wrong, the government is saying that the most dangerous area would be an area southwest of Okinawa in a group of islands called the Sakishima Islands. Those people have been told to definitely stay indoors this afternoon in the event of any falling debris if something does go wrong with the final burn -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Rebecca, is that -- how serious a concern is that among people? I mean, it's easy sometimes, I think, to overstate the amount of fear that people have for events such as this. I mean, I don't think that Tokyo is standing still at this moment, is it?

MACKINNON: Absolutely not, Miles. It's not standing still. People are going to work as usual. They are keeping one eye on the TV a bit more than usual just in case something comes up they need to know about. So it is in the back of everyone's minds. But as government officials have been repeating here, the chances of any part of Japan being hit by debris from Mir are more than one in 100 million. So they're really emphasizing the fact that they're just trying to take all potential precautions they can to keep the public at ease. But they don't expect anything to happen, Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon in Tokyo. And let's check in with our expert Mike Fudge, our man who understands orbital mechanics and how things return to Earth and specifically what's happening right now with Mir.

And Mike, as I understand it, the chances of Mir falling short are in the slim and none category. Is that correct?

FUDGE: That's probably correct, Miles. Basically, we are more concerned with something going perhaps a bit long than short. But, again, to emphasize to people that the Russians have done this time and time again with just the smaller progress ships for many, many years, and they have successfully de-orbited five space stations before.

O'BRIEN: Mike, I'm going to cut you off. And by the way, we are looking at pictures which came down just a minute ago from the Russian space station Mir from the progress attached to it and some of the last pictures, obviously, we'll see from it. Let's go to Jill Dougherty at Russian mission control -- Jill.

DOUGHERTY: Yeah, Miles, when those pictures came up on the screen, I'll tell you, every single eye was riveted on those last pictures. That is the last view from Mir. Mir, of course, alone in the sky right now. Nobody aboard and on its way to its death in the Pacific Ocean. A very riveting moment when people down who have been involved for so many years with the Mir were looking at that and looking at the last minutes of the Mir -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: You know, we're looking at some pictures now shot down in the lower level from where you're standing there, Jill. And as I look through the crowd, it's jam packed. And I'm kind of wondering how well the engineers are able to do their job given all the crush of people in there.

DOUGHERTY: You know, they're pretty quiet, though. A lot of them are watching very carefully. And, of course, most of the people who really are working have headphones on, earphones, so presumably, they're not listening to anything that's going on around them, especially at this crucial moment.

O'BRIEN: I suspect we'll have some sort of reaction as we once again look at some of this videotape, I believe, turned around just a few moments ago, black and white, grainy images. Nevertheless, a historical piece of footage as it is the last bit of footage we'll see from Mir. But I imagine -- I guess the term would not be celebrations, but there will be opportunities for these people to get together once everything has been completed, I suspect, Jill.

DOUGHERTY: Yeah, it's probably like an Irish wake, you know. You kind of celebrate while you cry. So -- and that does seem to be the mood. That's exactly what they feel. Number one, they're bringing it down. And so far, without any problems.

O'BRIEN: All right...

DOUGHERTY: So that's cause for celebration.

O'BRIEN: You know, I was talking to Norm Thagard earlier.

Norm, you were talking about the Russian fatalism. On the one hand, they're sort of individually fatalistic. On the other hand, they are very careful about other people's safety. It almost seems like a dichotomy.

THAGARD: But that is the way they are. They very much are concerned with health and safety of their cosmonauts, for instance, but when it comes to their own safety, a lot less regard.

O'BRIEN: All right, we are now right near the end of this expected burn. It's supposed to last about 19 minutes. It's going to be another five minutes before it is complete. Take a look at this rendition of what is happening right now in space from our friends at Analytical Graphics. And at the end here, the progress vehicle, you can see exactly what is happening as that plume spits out the -- well, I guess that is the death burn. You're seeing it right there, animated version. But that's what's happening right now in space. Keep an eye on Russia's mission control site on our Web site. We'll have all that as part of our interactive coverage, which is going on right now on CNN.com. The AOL keyword for that is CNN.

Now as we monitor Mir's third and final burn, we are going to take a short break. Don't worry. We're going to come back and we will keep you posted with reports from our earthbound viewing stations, and we will begin with the best assignment of all: Fiji. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JUNE 29, 1997)

JOHN HOLLIMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The docking of the shuttle Atlantis and the Russian space station Mir came in right on schedule. Cameras on the shuttle were able to show us the Mir. Then cameras on Mir took a close look at the shuttle from above it. And then the hatches opened. And for the first time in 20 years, Americans and Russians on separate ships were shaking hands in orbit.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: The voice of the late, the great John Holliman. I only wish he were here to share this moment with us.

Norm Thagard, you remember him well. And also, you were a much younger man just a few moments ago in that shot.

THAGARD: Yeah, but I don't have any -- didn't have any more hair then than I do now. John was a wonderful man, and I worked with him a couple of times and enjoyed it very much.

O'BRIEN: All right, all right, let's turn our attention now just a moment to the weather and what is going on out there in the South Pacific. There are some people who are hoping to catch a glimpse of all these activities. Some of them are paying an awful lot of money to be on a very expensive charter. Others just happen to be out there in fishing boats looking for tuna and might get quite a show indeed.

For the prospects of that, let's turn it now to CNN's Karen Maginnis, who is up in the weather center. Karen, how's it looking?

KAREN MAGINNIS, METEOROLOGIST: Hey, Miles. If anybody's floating around in those roaring 40s, it is a rough ride. You need some Dramamine for sure. We've got an interesting weather picture taking place here. This is North America. We're looking at the Hawaiian islands here, and if we were to go a little bit farther to the south there, we have New Zealand.

Now we give you this animated view. Once again New Zealand here. This is referred to as the roaring 40s. You get a lot of volatile weather systems here. If you follow any kind of the sailing races like the Whitbread race, you know that when they encounter some of these violent weather systems right across this region, boy, it really is rather treacherous.

Also, we're taking a look at Tahiti. Here's Rapa. Here is Rikitea and a little bit farther to the south, this is considered that dead zone, the drop zone or otherwise known as the impact zone. And pretty much in that zone from New Zealand over to the South America to the south, out of any real shipping lanes for the most part.

But there's a deep area of low pressure here. Frontal system extending up right around Fiji. Then we've got double point low pressure system with kind of a sheering that takes place here. So in the middle, a little bit of low clouds, a little bit of reduced visibility. And Miles, boy, that would be a really rough ride, but I'd almost like to be there as well. Now back to you.

O'BRIEN: That might be just the antidote for sea sickness: looking up at Mir as it comes in.

Let's take a quick look at our 3-D animation of the Russian space station Mir. What you're looking at right here is just a bit of moment of history. That is the Russian land mass and that is the last time that the space station Mir will leave it behind. Take a look at this altitude indication right there.

I don't know if you can read that at home, but it says it's already at 101 miles in altitude. That's about 60 kilometers. Or did I do that backwards? So it would be 120 kilometers, excuse me for that. The mathematics is escaping me at this point. But in any case, it heads out over to the Pacific now, dropping very, very quickly, headed toward our Hugh Williams, who is in the lovely island, on the lovely island of Fiji. And he's been giving us a sense of who is gathering there and what they hope to see -- Hugh.

HUGH WILLIAMS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, yes, it's a tough assignment but someone's got to do it. The mood here in Fiji is pretty relaxed right now. Like Karen said, the weather, well, mostly clear but there have been a lot of clouds building up this afternoon. So it's sunny and humid and it's pretty much business as usual for most people here. There is a certain curiosity about Mir, but no one in Fiji seems that scared about it falling on their heads. Now that might change soon when many are expected to turn their attention to the sky for a chance to glimpse Mir's final moments.

You know, the big orbiting Russian space station is anticipated to cross pretty much directly over Fiji in a short while on its southerly path to destruction. And there is a possibility that it might be seen from here if the conditions are right. So people will likely be gathering here on the beach soon to see if they can see anything. And if there is anything to see, we'll let you know right away -- Miles. O'BRIEN: All right, you will be looking toward the sky. And we should tell you less than two minutes away, and we will have the last official contact from Mir ever, the last telemetry contact, radio signal received on the ground for Mir as Mir taking a look at the board here heads over Japan. The concerns that were expressed there can be allayed even as we speak, as Mir goes over Japan at a healthy altitude of 95, now 94 miles headed down toward this zone right here in the South Pacific. Everything going according to the prescribed plan.

Now we were talking about people trying to see Mir and what they might possibly be able to -- perhaps the most audacious effort to do that is an outfit called Mirreentry.com. A group of people have gathered together, put together a charter. That charter is up in the air right now orbiting in the vicinity of that drop zone.

With us on the line is one of the organizers of that effort, Marc Herring.

Marc, when did the plane leave?

MARC HERRING, MIRREENTRY.COM: Hey, Miles. How are you doing?

It -- we left a little bit after 11:00 a.m. this morning here from Suva. And it's been making -- the two planes have been making their way through the South Pacific with a refueling in Tonga.

And I just spoke with them a moment ago. And they are currently in position on station, orbiting. They're having clear skies. They're expecting to observe the reentry phenomena at 5:45 local time. They have had continuous communications with flight control, both at NASA and there in Moscow. They've seen all systems be nominal on board. All monitored systems are functioning normal. We're on schedule. And we're regular.

O'BRIEN: Marc, as we're talking here, we are looking at live pictures of Russian Mission Control. And these are the people who, day in and day out, over the past 15 years and a month, have watched Mir as it has come across -- most of the time with people on board, sometimes without -- but have, nevertheless, sort of nurtured this spacecraft along.

And they are just about to see it for the last time on their computer screens there. That has got to be a moment of emotion for them.

Stand by there, Marc. I've just got to ask you, Norm, it's an emotional moment, isn't it?

THAGARD: It is an emotional moment. And, actually, I have a picture that was taken of my own family there in TsUP when the docking occurred on Mir. And it was clear that everybody in that place was very happy.

O'BRIEN: All right. Jill Dougherty, you're up in the balcony, sort of hovering above all those kind of sad eyes down there on the floor. When those screens go blank, it's -- there's a certain amount of finality to that, isn't there?

DOUGHERTY: There certainly is. I mean, it is over. Although, Miles, you know, a few minutes ago, when everybody was riveted on those live pictures, now there's a little bit more commotion down there: people smiling, I think, probably out of relief that this seems to be ending exactly as they wanted, and proof that the Russians, as one Russian told us, can really pull it together when they have to.

And they were able to pull it together for this. Apparently, it looks as if it's going picture perfect.

O'BRIEN: It seems as if this burn, this rocket firing, has done exactly as expected. This is a live picture of the board. Jill Dougherty is standing in front of it.

DOUGHERTY: I will move.

O'BRIEN: And these are some of the flight controllers as they look on.

Jim Oberg, this issue of Mir sort of rising above expectations seems to come back time and again. Just when you thought it was dead, it tends to surprise you. And just when you thought it might not be able to perform its last duties: Well, sure enough, it comes through without a hitch.

OBERG: Well, that's right, Miles. There's a robustness there to the Russian space technology that has caught people by surprise again and again, including me. There are things that it can do. You think that they've done all they can; they're down to the last trick; and the last trick works. The last ditch holds. This has been a cultural tradition over there. And it's something that we have to just, you know, gain some more respect for, because here, once again, when they had to, they came through and delivered.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to be leaving it there. We have to take a brief break here.

At an altitude now of 81 miles, the Mir space station has gone through three successive burns tonight over the course of a series of orbits, and is on its way, by all accounts, to a watery grave in the South Pacific, completely out of harm's way. You're looking at a real-time piece of telemetry of the space station. You can see the burn is no longer happening, coming out of the rocket at the end there. The Russian space station Mir has been given its lethal dose of rocket firings. And all that remains now is to watch it go into the drink.

Stay with us as we continue our coverage of Mir in its final moments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, SEPTEMBER 15, 1997)

BETSY AARON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It may not be a regularly scheduled event. But, once again, for the fourth time since July, Mir's computer is in trouble, the spacecraft is adrift, and nonessential systems have been switched off to save power. Once again, the men in Russian Mission Control assure that -- quote -- "Everything is under control." There is -- quote -- "nothing serious," even though two of the three components of the main computer were malfunctioning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: The computers: source of problem, even as recently as December. They lost contact with the computer system on Mir, lost contact with the space station entirely for about 20 hours. And that was one of the big areas of concern as they approach this deorbit time. They wanted to insure that they were able to communicate fully with the space station, obviously, before they brought it in, because having it in the proper orientation was essential in order for things to go just as planned.

And as we've been telling you, it appears everything has gone as planned. Here is the Russian space station Mir. And let me use the red pen; it will come across a little better. It's passed over Russian ground stations for the last time. The screens have gone blank at Russian Mission Control, the place they call TsUP, a sad moment there, as they see it go off the horizon.

It's gone across Japan at about 90 miles in altitude -- no problems there. It continues down this line, heading this way and is probably less than an hour away from that point right there -- altitude right now: under 70 miles.

I'm joined here by Norm Thagard, U.S. astronaut, first U.S. resident of Mir.

And at this altitude, the atmosphere is thickening pretty quickly, isn't it?

THAGARD: It is. I think we used to consider -- and Jim can confirm this, perhaps -- 400,000 feet to be entry interface, although to get our astronaut wings, we had to get above 50 statute miles.

O'BRIEN: Ah, there you go. There's a little factoid for you that you can consider.

Jim Oberg, who is joining us at one of the three Mir core modules that were produced -- one is about to go into the drink. The other two will remain after this evening. One of them is in Star City, Russia, used for training -- not any longer, of course. And this one happens to be in the Wisconsin Dells.

Jim, I'm curious about that very point. What kind of stresses right now is Mir undergoing as it reaches an altitude of about 66 miles? OBERG: OK. Here we are aboard the Mir. Now, you've got to beam me off here in time, Miles.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: OK, we'll do that for you.

OBERG: But what's happening is we're start -- we're starting to build up around the Mir the shockwave, the shock front. And the atmosphere has started to heat up. And it's this heat -- this reentry heating, which is caused by this shock front of air being built up in front of the speeding spacecraft, that creates this red glow, the one you see in your animations.

That's starting to build up now. The solar panels are starting to whip back and forth. And probably there goes one right now. It's just torn off. And the others would be tearing off now because the forces are just whipping them back and forth until they can no longer -- they -- until they break.

The rest of the modules are going to start to be slowing down. The big four ones up there in that crisscross section are like the -- like the back end of a shuttle cock. So we're going to bend around and go back-end forward, back-end forward into the deeper atmosphere, and start slowing down at more tremendous deceleration: five Gs, eight, 10, 15 Gs, as we ram into the atmosphere.

At that point, all this material you see around me is going to start tearing loose from the walls, flying into the back of the spacecraft right into your camera, right into your view. Even the paneling here will be tearing loose and piling up. All the -- this -- the wastewater on the outer skins, all the sludge is going to go sloshing back to the back end.

Finally, the hull's going to crack open, the pieces are going to break loose. And, by then, of course, oh, we're going to be gone.

O'BRIEN: All right, Jim Oberg, we'll beam you out. Don't worry.

We're at 62 miles. Let's take it to Mike Fudge with ITT Industries, who's an expert in all of this.

And Mike, one of the things that I've been reading a little bit about is, of course five of the six major modules on Mir -- the big ones -- are still pressurized. One was the Spektr module. It was involved in that collision. It is not.

FUDGE: Right.

O'BRIEN: The fact that it is pressurized, how does that change the way things will reenter? Will there be explosions associated with those bursting?

FUDGE: I wouldn't say explosions as such, Miles. But you will definitely have a release of air, which may cause some spinning of the structure. In the larger view, that won't really influence what survives and what doesn't, because there is so much randomness involved in this anyway. But, obviously, at that moment, you will get some torquing of the structures around and some very slight deviation off what had been a nominal flight path.

O'BRIEN: All right. And, once again, as we try to sort of decipher what's on Mir and what is likely to survive, just give us the basic rule of thumb. The heavier the metal, the more dense the metal, the more likely it is to survive? Is that an accurate statement?

FUDGE: Again, the denser the metal, the higher the melting temperature of the metal, the more likely it is to survive. Ironically, we see sometimes very light things survive, I mean, because they slow down very quickly. Those spheres which Jim has talked about are quite often titanium or stainless steel.

They will come down relatively unscathed, perhaps a slight bit of melting here or there. But even aluminum, which we normally think of as just crisping, that's because we normally think of aluminum as thin. If you have a large, large piece of aluminum, such as in a film vault, then, as was seen in Skylab, large pieces of aluminum can survive to the surface.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mike Fudge, let's put it on hold for just a moment. Mir is now at an altitude of 57 miles. We can see it's approaching the islands of -- the Polynesian Islands. Fiji is in this neighborhood right about here. And there's the end of the line. We expect that that's exactly where Mir will reach the end of a 2.2 billion mile journey.

We're not done with our journey here tonight, because we're going to make sure we stay with this all throughout the end, make sure Mir is in safe and has reached its watery grave without any consequences to property or to human beings. And we'd like to hear from some people who might have seen it along the way.

So stay tuned to CNN as "Mir falls to Earth."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, DECEMBER 19, 1990)

TAYLOR HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For Japanese television reporter Toyohiro Akiyama, it was the assignment of a lifetime, an assignment to space. The Tokyo Broadcasting System, or TBS, paid the Soviet Union a reported $12 million to launch Akiyama to its Mir Space Station, where he did live reports.

Akiyama, who spent a year-and-a-half in rigorous training for the assignment, is the first Japanese and the world's first journalist ever in space.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Nine days in space, the first journalist in space, Akiyama. Mir, right now, let's give you an update: an altitude of 49 miles, dropping like a rock, as it were. Let me show you on the chart here right where it is. That's the space station Mir. And that's the end of the line, not much further to go. As a matter of fact, by most accounts, it should be at the end of the line in about 15 minutes or so. That's our best estimation of what is happening.

Let's take a look at some animation we have, because this computer graphic is not showing you exactly what's going on. This takes you back a little bit to the burn, which we were talking about a while ago, which happened over Russia. And as Jim Oberg was pointing out to us, as he was graphically depicting what it would be like to be inside, this is what would happen -- or what is happening, we should say, even as we speak -- to the Russian space station Mir.

Actually, at an altitude of 48 miles, much of this might have already happened. You saw the solar arrays breaking off, the antennas breaking off. And then, as the plasma heats up around those six main modules, they all break apart, forming separate sort of cometary trails, an impressive man-made meteor.

Jim Oberg, don't you sort of wish you could see it?

OBERG: Well, Miles, I sure would like to see it. But, you know, people see this occasionally all around the world on a smaller scale. Satellites and rocket stages do come in, do create fireballs. Often, they make it in local news. They make it into the UFO magazines, because people see these white lights moving in apparent intelligent formation right across the sky horizontally.

In fact, they are just pieces, just like we saw in the graphics, of a rocket, of a satellite. So these do happen. This one is about the biggest ever. But this kind of thing happens all the time. And it also happens naturally. More than 10, more than a dozen objects bigger than Mir fall to Earth every year from outer space. So we definitely are in a falling-rock zone on this planet, both man-made and natural.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's take it over to Mike Fudge and sort of elaborate on that point.

Mike, as I understand it, in the years of the space age -- some 40 years now -- just about every single day, on average, of that space age, a piece of man-made junk has fallen on the planet. And at least once a week, one of those pieces is big, say about a ton. So this is going on all the time. We just don't know about it, do we?

FUDGE: That's correct, Miles.

Maybe not from the very first days, but definitely since the 1960s onward, this happens every day. To put it in perspective weight-wise, Mir has a mass of about 135 kilograms. That is presently about the amount of mass that comes in every year. In the -- back in the '80, it was more. It was several hundred thousand kilograms per year. So where as we're getting this all in one big show tonight, that's about how much we can expect over one year's time right now. O'BRIEN: All right, give us a sense of what's going on right now, because the graphic, which we're showing you, is a bit misleading, in the sense that, at 45 miles in altitude, there is a big streak going on. And let's take it right now to Hugh Williams, as a matter of fact.

Mike, you stand by there for a moment.

Hugh Williams, on the island of Fiji, what are you seeing, Hugh?

WILLIAMS: Miles, just the most unbelievable, incredible show I just saw right now out on the beach in front of my hotel. I'm breathless from seeing it. Basically, the Mir came streaking across the horizon in five, six, seven, maybe nine pieces, making a huge sort of golden trail through the sky. The people that are gathered out here in Nadi here watching it, were just in awe, seeing it stream across the sky -- just basically a collection of very bright, golden- colored lights, absolutely tearing across the sky.

It probably would have taken less than a minute, maybe a minute- and-a-half. And it looked very low. Now, the other thing that has just unnerved me slightly is some thunderstorm nearby, which is making some loud noises. I don't believe that's related to what I just saw. But, really, an unbelievable show and -- as that thing went streaking past here, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Wow, that is quite a report, Hugh. Let me ask you this: Is it possible it wasn't thunder? Could it have been a sonic boom from, perhaps, some of those pieces moving so quickly?

WILLIAMS: There is a distinct possibility of that. Miles, right behind me, there's a gigantic thunderstorm off in a different direction. So I could not tell you if that noise was related directly to what I saw. But the light show in the sky was phenomenal, I mean, like nothing I've ever seen before.

O'BRIEN: All right. Go ahead.

WILLIAMS: Rocketing across the horizon.

O'BRIEN: Unbelievable. Now, we're taking a look at a live picture. This is Mission Control outside Moscow, the place they call (UNINTELLIGIBLE) We're looking at the map there. That little blip was getting into the box that they call the area that they were aiming for: the debris-impact zone.

There you see those mission controllers looking at their screens. Of course, the screens aren't telling them so much anymore. They're not getting any real-time telemetry. Everything now is an estimate. But we can confirm that Mir is streaking down to that site in the Pacific that they were aiming for, now at an altitude of some 41 miles.

All right, we are going to take a quick break. And we're going to be talking all of our people on those Pacific islands to see if we can get some similar reports and similar eyewitness accounts as to what is happening as Mir now is squarely inside that zone where that debris field will begin. And we will also talk to one of Norm Thagard's crewmates, who is standing by at Russian Mission Control.

Stay with us as Mir falls to Earth, even as we speak.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: It's the end of the road for the Russian Space Station Mir. Take a look at this live telemetry: a 3-D representation of what's going on right now. Upper left of your screen, that's the altitude as we speak: 27 miles and falling quickly -- the space station not intact as we see it right now. That is the one thing that is inaccurate with this diagram.

As a matter of fact, we've had some eyewitness accounts that it has split apart and created an incredible fireworks display over some of the Southern Pacific islands, in particular, the island of Fiji, where CNN's Hugh Williams just saw the light show of his life.

Hugh, did you hear anything associated with it?

WILLIAMS: Miles, just while you were in the break, I was able to hear what distinctly sounded to me like the sonic booms associated with the Mir as it went overhead. There were, like I described before, several pieces, perhaps large fragments, which, in front of my eyes, fell apart into several more fragments.

And it was several minutes -- I'm not sure exactly how many minutes -- before the sonic booms could be heard. But they were quite distinct and loud. So that happening at the same time as the thunder storm in the background is quite a show down here in Fiji.

O'BRIEN: Quite an experience. I'm sure it's one you won't forget too soon. Hugh, I got to ask you: Did you get a chance to get any videotape of it?

WILLIAMS: Well, Miles, to tell you the truth, I got the whole thing on tape. So that's my next mission is to get the pictures to you so you can see what I saw.

O'BRIEN: Hugh? Hugh, how quickly can you...

WILLIAMS: But, like I said, pretty spectacular.

O'BRIEN: I think we might dismiss you to get you to an uplink as quickly as possible. Jim Oberg has a question for you, Hugh, before you go to feed that tape, because we're dying to see it -- Jim, go ahead.

OBERG: Yes, hi, Hugh. Great luck and great report. You said that yellowish color for the objects?

(CROSSTALK)

OBERG: That yellowish color is what see -- yes. You saw a yellowish or golden color to the dots? WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was...

OBERG: Yellow or...

WILLIAMS: I was filming while I was watching the objects. So I saw them through a tele-viewfinder in my camera -- but a very goldenish, perhaps a little bit silvery fireballs, basically, not leaving a huge trail -- more like a sparkler being whipped through the air.

And there was no smoke trail that I saw. But the speed and just the size of the objects was amazing. It was like something out of a science fiction movie.

OBERG: It was still daylight there. So you probably wouldn't see much of the trail. We see the space shuttles when they come in over Houston sometimes, about 40 miles up. Six or eight minutes later, the sonic boom reaches us. And they also leave a golden yellow trail behind them, which is a special kind of oxygen ion recombining in the upper ionosphere. So...

WILLIAMS: Yes.

OBERG: Great report

(CROSSTALK)

OBERG: You got all the details.

WILLIAMS: One thing I wanted to mention, if I could just jump in here for a moment, was that I was alongside one of the organizers of the observation trip, who mentioned to me that he believed this deorbit was somewhat lower than they anticipated. So I don't know if you have accurate updated information about where the debris is falling or has fallen, but it did seem rather low in the sky.

O'BRIEN: All right, lets bring you up to date on that, because, as Hugh was speaking, you couldn't see it -- and Jim, you couldn't see it -- but, basically, the graphical representation that we had of the Russian space station Mir, through the courtesy of Analytical Graphics, simply disappeared from the screen.

I'm going to take it over the Hank Grabowski and ask him: What does that mean? Is it over?

GRABOWSKI: Well, yes. As far as we're concerned, yes, it's over. And he said, it seemed like the burn went a little hot. That basically is what that graphic showed. It crashed a little bit earlier than they had expected, but...

O'BRIEN: All right, so help -- decipher for those of us who aren't rocket scientists.

GRABOWSKI: I'm sorry, yes.

O'BRIEN: The burn was a little hot. It just had a little more oomph than expected?

GRABOWSKI: Yes, exactly. They burned a little bit harder. They produce a little more change in velocity. And so it went down faster and sooner than they thought it was going to.

O'BRIEN: All right. So can we fairly accurately say that the end has happened for Mir?

GRABOWSKI: Pretty much. There may be some stuff floating through the atmosphere that kind of like leaves in a wind, something like that. But the big chunks are probably down, yes.

O'BRIEN: All right, I think you have now officially heard it here first at a time of 12:58 a.m. Eastern Time, about -- let's see, that would be about 06:00 almost, GMT.

Norm Thagard, I think that's the end of the line for Mir. It's a moment to consider, isn't it?

THAGARD: It is. It really is.

O'BRIEN: All right. We also have, joining us, from Russian Mission Control, a man who you flew with on the Russian space station Mir: Gennady Strekalov.

And, Mr. Strekalov -- and we're going to do this through a translator, so we'll take it slowly. I guess I should offer you condolences. Is that accurate to say?

GENNADY STREKALOV, FORMER COSMONAUT (through translator): Well, to some extent, it's true. I accept condolences.

O'BRIEN: What are your thoughts about Mir and its long accomplishments over 15 years?

STREKALOV (through translator): This orbit outpost, Mir, is the entire century park this orbit outpost Mir is the entire century part in the space research. And I think that we will, number of times, will recall even having the up-to-date, the most novel space research and achievements.

O'BRIEN: Is this a sad moment, sir, for the Russian space program...

STREKALOV (through translator): Hold on a second.

O'BRIEN: Are you OK? Should I keep going?

STREKALOV (through translator): The Mir is a special...

O'BRIEN: OK.

STREKALOV (through translator): Not yet. It's big school, many cosmonauts and astronauts from various countries had the experience through Mir station, and of course the significance of this schooling, you can over-appreciate. The orbit station Mir was proudly flying around the earth, and with dignity is accomplishing its service life, falling into the Pacific Ocean without any hurt to anybody.

O'BRIEN: And we can all be glad that that is the case.

Mr. Strekalov, we have with you -- we have with us here as former crewmate of yours, Norm Thagard, and he'd like to say a few words to you. Go ahead, Norm.

THAGARD: Gennady, (SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN)

STREKALOV (through translator): Hello, Norm Thagard. How are you, Norm?

THAGARD: I'm doing well, Gennady. I wish either I were there with you or you here with me tonight.

STREKALOV (through translator): Norm, what kind of emotions and feelings you experience while you hear that Mir station has demised?

THAGARD: Sadness, Gennady. I'm sorry to see it go, and wish that we could meet again on the Mir station. But I guess we can't do that now.

STREKALOV (through translator): Norm, we got some hopes to get together again at the future station, with the name Mir number two.

THAGARD: Let's do it.

STREKALOV (through translator): Do you believe it's possible?

THAGARD: (speaks in Russian)

STREKALOV (through translator): I like to dream to be your crewmate, because I work -- the work we had was rather successful. It was up to benchmarks.

THAGARD: I would agree with that. And Gennady, it was a wonderful time for me, and I really enjoyed your friendship.

O'BRIEN: All right, gentlemen, I thank you for sharing that moment with all of us, two old crewmates getting together at a sad moment, a moment where they have an opportunity to reminisce a little bit about some historic days gone by.

The Mir space station is no more. And as best we can tell, it has fallen into the Pacific without causing harm to anyone or anything.

Stay with us as our coverage continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JUNE 25, 1997)

HOLLIMAN (voice-over): The three men aboard the Russian space station Mir were in the middle of testing their docking system when the Russian cargo ship Progress crashed into one of Mir's six modules. The space station module Spektr is where American astronaut Michael Foale lives and keeps some of his equipment.

A solar panel on the Spektr was damaged in the collision. As air in Spektr rushed out, the crew heard a hissing noise and hurriedly sealed off the module to prevent a further drop in pressure in the rest of the space station.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back to our coverage of the fall of Mir to earth. And we can now put that in the past tense. It's now, by my watch, been about eight minutes since the Russian space station Mir went into the drink in the South Pacific, exactly where the Russians wanted to put it. As best we know, no one or no thing was injured or harmed by it. And the space station is no more.

Let's take a look at some animation as to what happened over the South Pacific just a little while ago. We've already had an eyewitness account which would bear this out, this animation was quite prescient. Hugh Williams, our man on Fiji, said it was a stunning sight as the Russian space station flew overhead, streaking across with perhaps as many as nine fireballs all across the sky, accompanied by a series of sonic booms.

What you're seeing here is what was the prelude to that, as the solar arrays and the antennas split off, and then the six key major modules, each of them weighing about 20 tons, split off, ruptured, and then melted and burned and fell toward the earth. The estimates were beforehand that as much as 20 to 40 tons of Mir would survive. Of course, we'll never know the answer to that.

Mike Fudge, it sure would be nice if we could know that. I'm sure that people who study what you like to study like to get that kind of data. No way to do it, is there?

FUDGE: Well, that's the very crux of the matter, isn't it, Miles? You want to put these things down in a safe place, which means over the broad ocean area, but then you can never really recover the material to find out if all of your calculations and assumptions were correct.

O'BRIEN: All right. But there is the possibility, of course, that some pieces might actually float to the surface, some of those tanks we are talking about.

FUDGE: That's very true.

O'BRIEN: Jim Oberg, you were talking about that a little while ago. Jim Oberg is sitting inside not just a replica, a real Mir core module, it's just one that never got off the ground.

Jim, what would happen if somebody in Chile in the next couple of days -- and the prevailing currents, by the way, I should tell you, do flow from west to east. If somebody in Chile were to go out to the beach and all of a sudden a tank or a little piece of something that looked (inaudible) washed up, would he or she have struck the lotto? OBERG: Well, if these tanks -- and some of them are floating in the water right now, and I fully expect that several dozen of these are out there now on the water -- finding them is certainly a matter of chance. There's a fishing fleet out there. They're alert, they're looking for them. And if they do eventually wash ashore along some beach, someone could pick them up.

The issue is, of course, who owns them? Now, by international law -- and there are treaties about this -- those are properties of the Soviet government -- or of the Russian government. In practice, as pieces of them are picked around the world with Russian or Cyrillic lettering on them, people have written to the Russian embassies in those countries asking for them. The Russians, not wanting to be liable for any danger or damage, have just disclaimed any knowledge and not wanted them back.

So in practice, whoever finds them has a clear legal title to them and could sell them if they could prove they really did come from Mir. I think it's just as likely we're going to see some fake Mir pieces showing up in the next couple of weeks, as well as genuine pieces.

O'BRIEN: Ah, already the hoaxes have begun. I guess that's probably safe to say.

OBERG: Well, it's not just hoaxes too, Miles, because there's a lot of junk -- sadly, there's lots of junk floating on the ocean, even at this distant part -- South Pacific, lots of stuff from people, who just -- who use the ocean as their toilet. So there's lots of things down there that people will pick up, may wonder, honestly think they may be from Mir. It would take some investigation to find out.

And so there will probably be some genuine mysteries and ambiguities for some things that are being found floating on the water down there.

O'BRIEN: Ah, it ends in a mystery.

Jill Dougherty there at mission control in Moscow, just having had a few moments witnessing Gennady Strekalov talk with his former crewmate Norm Thagard, lot of emotion there, isn't there?

DOUGHERTY: A lot, there really is. You know, these guys worked with each other and became friends with each other, and they're very devoted to each other and devoted to the space program. They kind of think of themselves as really citizens of the world when they're up there, and were treated as such. And I think that has continued. You could tell the emotion in his face as he was talking to his buddy in the States.

And then here, you know, Miles, as this has been happening, all of a sudden lots of flashbulbs going off and people taking pictures of each other in front of the last -- the screen showing the last minutes of the Mir.

Also a very touching time for these people too. Several of them had flown on the Mir themselves and were down here getting their pictures taken as their spaceship was sent into the ocean -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jill, you know, as we're -- you're talking there, we're seeing some of the previous crews of Mir projected up on that screen behind you. And that's got to be a moment -- I'm sure many of those people are present there, many of their families, many of their friends, certainly their co-workers.

I see the cameras there. It's got to be such a grab-bag of emotions. On the one hand, for gosh sakes, take a moment to pat yourself on the back, job well done, folks. On the other hand, there is no tomorrow, is there?

DOUGHERTY: Yes, I was wondering whether people would cry, and actually I only saw one woman who had a few tears in her eyes. But most of the people seem to think exactly that, job well done, 15 years, you know, living longer than it was ever expected, about three times longer than it was supposed to live.

And they talk about it like a human being, you know, "It died," "It lived." And that's how I think they will think of it.

Also, they really do feel that what they did, the Russians, on Mir taught the rest of the world how to deal with long-term time in space. They showed people how you can exist in space, how you can get the components out. And if you look at the ISS, very similar to Mir in many ways.

So as they said, it was a school, it was a school that taught people in the reset of the world how to live in space.

O'BRIEN: Yes, I can concur with that. I mean, you look at that international space station, and really it's just an updated Mir knockoff. Everything they're doing up there is based on Mir principles.

Norm Thagard, there's a bit of stoicism there. She said she saw only one person crying. That's part of the Russian character, isn't it?

THAGARD: It is part of the Russian character. But I think clearly Gennady was saddened by this, and I am too, you know.

O'BRIEN: It -- if you had the opportunity to be there right now and communicate more fully with them, what -- how -- what would you offer as words of comfort for them? And I guess that's another way of saying, Write me a little page of the legacy of Mir.

THAGARD: Well, I'd tell him things I really believe, which is, I think you folks did a wonderful job with that station. It served its purpose, it did very well, and you can be proud of it.

O'BRIEN: All right. Norm Thagard, the first U.S. resident of Mir, had an opportunity to have a little reunion there, sort of an electronic reunion. And sharing a moment, we're all sharing a moment as we watch the mission control center there in Moscow offering themselves some congratulations, but saddened congratulations, with the passing of a space station that's been a part of their lives for so many years.

We're going to continue our coverage. Stay with us for more as we continue following Mir's demise.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, March 21, 1997)

JERRY LINENGER, ASTRONAUT: Once the fire broke out back behind me, the master alarm went off, of course, the smoke filled the station. The smoke was immediate, it was dense. Where I was sitting, I could see basically the five fingers on my hand.

We immediately went to the oxygen breathing device, and without that, I don't think you would have been able to breathe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Just to recap for you, the third time was a charm for the Russian Aviation and Space Agency. They pushed the buttons that fired a rocket as the Russian space station Mir flew over the Russian land mass. That rocket fired for about 20 minutes. It was the third of a series of burns over the course of the past five and a half hours, and that burn did the trick. It sent the Russian space station on its way to a watery grave somewhere inside this red box.

As you can see, this charting software that we've been having, satellite track -- satellite software tracking capability, no more Mir to show you, just the box where we anticipate a fairly large debris field has rained down on it, out of harm's way, causing no harm to anyone or anything that we know of.

An eyewitness, CNN's Hugh Williams, who was on the island of Fiji as Mir streaked across in its final moments, indicated he saw a spectacular light show accompanied by sonic booms, a light show like he had never seen before, something, he said, that took his breath away.

Now, he was able to capture that moment on videotape, and even as we speak, we're getting him to a satellite uplink. We should have some videotape here in CNN within the next couple of hours. We'll of course be sharing that with you as soon as we get it here.

So the Russians did what they said they would do, despite the fact that the space station Mir, some parts of it, the core itself, was 15 years old, and at times ailing and failing, it did come through, and it did what it was supposed to do when it needed to.

In some sense, perhaps, these were Mir's finest hours, in some sense. It's a sad moment for the space world, devotees of space, enthusiasts. Mir was a spacecraft that accomplished a lot over 15 years. But I guess, like all good things, it must come to an end.

We'll be back with more. We'll check in with all of our experts one last time as we continue our coverage of Mir falling to earth.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, February 20, 1986)

STUART LOORY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Shortly after midnight Moscow time, the big Soviet rocket lifted into orbit the base module of what is intended as a permanent manned space station. The launch was first shown to the Soviet public on television almost 12 hours after it happened. A statement by Tass, the official news agency, said the space station was launched in honor of next week's Communist Party Congress and was named Mir, the Russian word for peace.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Mir's birthday, February 20, 1986, its date of its demise, March 23, the year 2001, just a little while ago, about a half an hour ago.

Let's get some final thoughts from all of our esteemed guests, and let's begin right here with Hank Grabowski, who is with Analytical Graphics. Just a quick word from you, Hank, on how accurate what we've seen on that screen has been, and whether we have a fairly good sense of where Mir went down.

GRABOWSKI: Well, according to what we've heard from our mission control, we were expecting that it landed somewhere around 40 degrees latitude south, west longitude of between 160 and 140. According to our calculations, it landed around 45 degrees south latitude and around 150 degrees west longitude.

O'BRIEN: All right, so some precision there. Thanks to you folks at Analytical Graphics for that.

Let's take it over to Jill Dougherty, who is at Russian mission control, the place they call TsUP. Jill, some final thoughts from you.

DOUGHERTY: Well, Miles, I'd say that there were high points and low points in this, but ultimately, even though the space program, the Russian space program, has financial problems and many other problems, the brain power that put this together is still alive and well.

O'BRIEN: All right. Mike Fudge, ITT Industries, a man who understands a lot about orbital mechanics, you're a scientist, but you're also a human being. We've witnessed the end of an era, haven't we?

FUDGE: Yes, we have, Miles. It is a bit sad, looking back on it. I mean, when this launched, just to put things in perspective, I was a freshman in college at Virginia Tech. So, you know, my experience is a little different from Norm's, but I could definitely see the emotion in Norm, and in Commander Strekalov.

But let's get this right, now, the Russians are six for six for safely deorbiting space stations in a controlled fashion into the Pacific.

O'BRIEN: All right, that's a good point to end with you on that.

Let's go to Jim Oberg in the Wisconsin Dells. Jim, you have looked at the -- first the Soviet space program, now the Russian space program, for as long as anybody. Put this in perspective, write the first draft of the first page of the history of Mir and how it relates to the history of the Russian space program.

OBERG: Well, the Mir that's around me now, this model is full of ghosts of people who really pioneered the kind of things we need to do to get beyond earth orbit and into planetary flight. Now this whole spacecraft itself is a ghost, and maybe in that form, it'll travel much farther than even it did in real life, because it's going to be reminding us what can be done, what can be overcome, when it comes to facing the challenges of space.

O'BRIEN: Norm Thagard, it says a lot about the way the Russians think about their space program, their philosophy in general about life, is sort of wrapped up in Mir, isn't it?

THAGARD: It is, and I'm saddened probably as much for my Russian colleagues as for the demise of Mir. We're now truly in the international space station era, but I'm heartened by the fact that space exploration continues.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, I can say, as a reporter, I'm saddened to see the Russian space station go, and if nothing else, it was a compellingly human story. Despite the fact it was all about hardware, it was also about human beings, about adventure, about overcoming long odds. And I for one will miss it, and I will miss the story.

That completes our special report. My thanks to Norm Thagard, to Mike Fudge, Jim Oberg, the folks from Analytical Graphics, and our Moscow bureau chief, Jill Dougherty.

I'm Miles O'Brien at the CNN Center. Thanks for joining us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The big Soviet rocket lifted into orbit: Mir, the Russian word for peace.

O'BRIEN: ... The groundwork for an astounding partnership with the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MALES: Welcome, welcome!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It became my whole home. And I was pretty comfortable in it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): From time to time, they would send us messages that would say things like, "Guys, all the Catholics in Rome are praying for you." When you receive a message like that, of course you are touched by it. We understood that they know about us down there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Two, 3 foot flames, sparks flying. It was a very, very serious fire.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Mir slammed into a cargo supply ship.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Russian commander is suffering heart problems, unable to...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Computer on the Russian space station Mir has shut down...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Mir rolled out of control, power levels plummeted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I actually think we are exaggerating all these failures and malfunctions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The temperature inside parts of the Mir space station have gone up to 100 degrees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): These have always existed. Such is life. This is normal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Another Monday, another Mir malfunction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Well, of course, it's not quite normal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So are you sending out astronauts on a suicide mission?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got one other gift for Sasha and Vasily. We're making them honorary 84 members, with a little hat that shows our patch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we've got Elena coming in with the traditional bed and soap.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Mir station has, even in the worst economic times that they've experienced in the last few years, has still been something they could point to and say, Hey, in spite of all our problems, we still have this shining example of Russian capability.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The experience of Mir, it's a foundation for International Space Station and any joint projects.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got a lot of bad press, some deserved, some not deserved. But it was a remarkable technical accomplishment, nonetheless. And I'm sorry to see it go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a sad moment, on the one hand, to say goodbye to Mir. On the other hand, we have to progress further. And all things go away and new things arrive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do svidaniya, do svidaniya.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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