Russian Roulette, Mir - Style

By JJ King, 10 April 2001

For a week in March the Mir crash-landing was a hot and reliable global news item. Finding himself in the Planned Target Zone, JJ King experienced how hot news feels when you’re standing under it.


Mir: a heavenly body falling to earth? The poetry of a Cold War science project returning home. Right?

Yeah, right – unless you happen to be living bang in the zone of impact, waiting with the millions of other islanders who comprehend, with varying degrees of precision, that something really big is going to fall out of the sky somewhere (relatively) near by. Welcome to Vitalevu, Fiji: a place where ‘satellite’ (let alone ‘Cold War’) means very little at all to the vast majority of the population, but in whose vicinity a 136-ton, bus-sized space station is going to come crashing down, spreading its molten debris across a 6,000-kilometre radius.

In the days before re-entry, I find myself unable to stop thinking about the litany of mechanical problems (fires, collisions with other spacecraft, malfunctioning oxygen systems, leaks – you name it) that have made, for the last twenty-odd years, the cosmonauts’ lives on board Mir a kind of extenuated Russian Roulette. It seems unjust that the Russians’ Roulette should now have redounded onto the Pacific Islanders (Nikolai Ivanov chief navigator of Mir, conceded in the week before the crash that there could be no guarantee that the thing would fall on target.)

These Islanders, who could never have participated in the so-called space-race, whose only experience of the Cold War and its fruits had been in the form of the nuclear testing carried out in the so-called Pacific Proving Grounds were now, as the zone of the least population (and therefore least risk) in the world, to become the proving grounds for the Russian technicians who could give ‘no guarantees’. Wouldn’t Washington, DC, I kept thinking, have had far more poetic potential?

The Japanese, not liking one little bit the one-in-a-hundred-million odds of getting hit by a falling chunk of Mir, went on national alert and set up a crisis management centre. Major airlines rerouted their Pacific flights. In Fiji, where there’s no government left to speak of following yet another coup, a national alert would have been problematic, to say the least, and there were no warnings. The people watched Mir’s fragments, held together for so long by the efforts of Russia’s spacemen, streaking silently in, eating up the night like jet flames. The pieces came down, someone said, in the ‘Planned [but not – did I mention it? – guaranteed] Target Zone’, somewhere between New Zealand and Chile. Not far off – but far enough for us. We had played Roulette with the Russians – and survived.

JJ King <>

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