The chance that Russia’s decrepit space station Mir will crash into the Earth, instead of the Pacific ocean, is as high as one in 33, according to a Russian space control official. Space experts warn that if anything goes wrong during the operation, the sections that do not burn up in the atmosphere could end up on land.

“Any technical equipment can fail at any time,” Vladimir Solovyev said. “We put the risk at 2 to 3 percent.” But he adds that, “Right now, everything is fine on board the station.”

Russia has refused offers from NASA and the European Space Agency to help them nudge the space station out of orbit so that it can fall harmlessly into the ocean, south of Australia. They have announced that Mir will crash to earth about a week later than planned, on March 13-18, rather than March 5-8, as originally calculated.

“It is now moving at an altitude of [170 miles].and the decision was to start dumping it when it comes to [135-160 miles],” said Vyacheslav Mikhalichenko. “We had thought it would reach that altitude on about March 3 and March 8 was the scheduled date for dumping it.”

The operation of taking Mir out of orbit, making sure that most of its mass burns up as it enters the atmosphere, and tracking it to its destination some 1,850 miles east of New Zealand’s southern tip, will take 2 to 3 days. The actual re-entry phase should take only about 15 minutes.

Communist party chief Gennady Zyuganov says that the destruction of Mir is a “betrayal of national interests” and accuses Russian space officials of “working for the United States.If the station is destroyed, we will be obliged to shut down our space industry, to throw into the dustbin the fruits of unique work.”

Former cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastyanov agrees. “The destruction of Mir serves the interests of NASA, which is directing the International Space Station and wants to get a rival out of the way,” he says.

But the Russian government says that it can no longer afford its commitment to the space station. In recent years, the 14 year-old station has experienced many accidents, including a serious fire and a near-fatal collision with a cargo ship in 1977. Ground control thought they had lost track of it for good when a sudden power outage cut off communications for 24 hours. Mir was originally designed to operate for only 3 years.

NASA may not want to admit it, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they have pressured Russia to get their old junker out of the way before it collides with their expensive new model.

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