- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Forget the fact that some 1,500 assorted nuts, bolts and chunks may rain down upon the Earth when Russia's vintage space station Mir plummets home again in about 10 days.
It's that mutant space fungi we should fret about.
After 15 years of festering away in various air ducts and control panels aboard the old orbiter, some mystery mold is also along for the ride.
"I cannot overstate this. A realistic problem exists," Yuri Karash said yesterday at a press conference in Moscow.
A former cosmonaut and now a journalist, he became unnerved after reviewing Mir documents at the city's 38-year-old Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, which once designed a life-support system for a "Heavy Interplanetary Ship," among other things.
Washington residents can spot Mir in one of its final appearances, passing low in our northeastern skies at 6:43 p.m. tomorrow for two minutes, 10 degrees above the horizon, according to NASA.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have become weary of assuring the governments of Japan, Australia and, more recently, Germany that most of the spacecraft will incinerate upon entering Earth's atmosphere, sometime between March 17 and 20.
But hundreds of fragments are expected to survive the de-orbit up to 27 to 45 tons worth, by some estimates, raining down in a 3,500-mile-long debris field in the South Pacific between Australia and South America. A few behemoths the size of a car may drop from the sky, traveling a half-mile per second.
"Debris from dozens of booster rockets and hundreds of meteorites annually reach Earth and nothing terrible happens," Mir designer Leonid Gorshkov said yesterday.
Still, the Russian Aerospace Agency is taking no chances with Mir's demise. The agency announced yesterday it was taking out a $200 million insurance policy to cover any damages caused by the 137-ton station during its one-hour finale.
Australian emergency officials have estimated that a car-sized hunk has a one-in-5,000 chance of hitting their country. There are "contingency plans with state and local governments" in place to deal with errant debris, according to spokesman David Templeman.
But back to that fungus, which may soon be among us.
The Russian expert, Mr. Karash, fears that microorganisms growing in isolation above Earth have taken on unknown and "aggressive" forms, a fact confirmed by a Russian microbiologist some 13 years ago. Should they survive Mir's fall to the sea, the fungus could prove corrosive and even toxic.
"Mir does have its own small ecosystem up there," said microbiologist James Staley, head researcher for the University of Washington's new astrobiology program, which is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
"But I would be surprised if there was a real potential hazard. This fungus would have too much to compete with here on Earth to survive," Mr. Staley said. "Still, the microbiology in that situation, the mutational events up there, are not entirely understood. It is a fascinating thing to think about."
Some folks are more than fascinated with Mir.
An American "extreme" travel group will ferry a group of intrepid and well-heeled observers to the splash site when the time comes, charging $10,000 for a window seat aboard a chartered prop-jet.
The Mir Reentry Expedition, which already has its own commemorative patches, has a group of 60 standing by to depart Los Angeles for Tahiti, where they will then board the research aircraft.
Mir's crash will "look the same as when a big meteorite enters the atmosphere, like a rocket launch, or a big firework," noted Sergei Avdeyex, one of four former Mir cosmonauts who have agreed to go along for old times' sake.
Mr. Avdeyex spent a record-setting 748 days on Mir, and was credited with keeping the craft in orbit during 10 much-publicized mishaps in 1998.
There is a fancy Web site (www.mirreentry.com) for the $1 million jaunt. Organizer Bob Citron is guaranteeing that "Mir's luminous retirement" will have a "spectacular pyrotechnic display," and there will be a post-crash party in Tahiti afterward.
Mr. Citron will use data from both Russian and U.S. space agencies during the flight, which is expected to last about 20 minutes, some 30,000 feet up.
Though the Russians have charged American "space tourist" Dennis Tito an estimated $20 million for a ride in a Soyuz rocket and a 10-day stay on the International Space Station beginning April 30, they will make no money from Mir's final descent.
They're just not interested, they say.
"Those who commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge do not pay anything to the authorities of New York, do they?" asked Russia's top space official, Yuri Koptev, at a recent press conference.

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