Science & Technology

What Is Mir? Learn About the Mir Space Station’s Origins and 9 Key Milestones From Its History

Written by MasterClass

Jun 14, 2019 • 5 min read

The International Space Station (ISS) is a symbol of humanity’s prowess and potential for space travel. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Mir, a major space station built by the Soviet Union, played that role. Mir outlasted the USSR, eventually orbiting Earth for 15 years and hosting crew members from across Europe, the United States, and Canada.

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What Is Mir?

The Russian space station Mir orbited Earth from 1986 to 2001. Initially operated by the Soviet Union before the state’s dissolution in 1991, Mir was the largest artificial satellite in orbit until the launch of the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998. It was also humankind’s first continuously inhabited research station in space and the first modular space station. Mir was the site of many pioneering moments in the history of aeronautics. Its name means “peace” or “world” in Russian.

What Is a Space Station?

Space stations enable us to experience and take advantage of spaceflight over long periods of time. Think of them as “purpose-built laboratories orbiting the world.” Their unique environment allows us to conduct experiments that aren’t possible on Earth—directly observing the universe and our planet with multiple sensor types, and using the unending, near-perfect vacuum and microgravity environment for research and manufacture.

They are also a test bed for spaceship hardware, to gain proven experience and confidence close to home before we head further into the solar system.

What Are Mir’s Origins?

The Soviet Union was the first spacefaring nation. They put the first human into earth orbit in 1962, their Soyuz capsule has been successfully flying since the late 1960s, and they built the first space station, Salyut 1, in the early 1970s. Following steady improvements in that design through to 1982’s Salyut 7, they launched the first segment of the Mir space station in 1986, following it up with six additional modules that attached to the craft.

The Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft would visit Mir for support and resupply. They were later joined by U.S. space shuttle Atlantis.

6 Modules of Mir

The initial segment of Mir that the Soviets sent into space in 1986 was known as the core module or “base block.” It was the heart of the space station, containing living quarters, a work area, life support, power, and the main computer, communications, and control equipment.

But as a modular space station, the Mir could attach to additional elements, and in the subsequent years gained the following 6 modules.

  1. Kvant-1 (1987). Attached to Mir’s aft docking port, Kvant-1 was the astrophysics module. It supported research in the physics of galaxies, quasars and neutron stars, with scientific equipment including an X-ray telescope, ultraviolet telescope, and an X-ray/gamma ray detector.
  2. Kvant-2 (1989). The augmentation module, Kvant-2 provided biological research, earth observation, and extravehicular activity support. It was also equipped with a Lyappa manipulator arm for moving other modules after they docked with Mir.
  3. Kristall (1990). This technology module had two sections—one mostly dedicated to materials processing and astronomical observations, and another that was a docking compartment.
  4. Spektr (1995). The power module, Spektr was the first of three modules launched during the Shuttle-Mir co-operative program between Russia and the United States. As well as living quarters and work zones for NASA astronauts, it had four solar arrays that generated approximately half the station’s electrical power.
  5. Docking Module (1995). Designed to simplify the space shuttle docking system on Mir, the Docking Module allowed docking without interference from the Kristall module or solar arrays.
  6. Priroda (1996). The earth-sensing module, Priroda, meaning “nature,” experimented with remote sensing of the weather, ocean-atmosphere system, crop conditions and human impact on the environment down on Earth.

9 Key Milestones From Mir’s History

Mir was the site of a number of breakthroughs and world records, including:

  1. 15 March 1986. The first principal expedition, Mir EO-1, arrived at Mir, bringing the station online and checking its systems. Mir hosted 28 long-duration crews during its lifetime.
  2. 12 April 1987. The first module, Kvant-1, docked with Mir.
  3. 25 February 1992. The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) formed following the collapse of the USSR, taking over responsibility for Mir but without the funding to finance the planned Spektr and Priroda modules.
  4. 17 June 1992. Russian president Boris Yeltsin and U.S. president George HW Bush announced that the countries would cooperate on space flight—a venture that evolved into the Shuttle-Mir program and saw American astronauts visit Mir.
  5. 11 March 1995. Russian cosmonaut and physician Valeri Polyakov completed the longest single stay in space in human history, returning to Earth from Mir after 437 days and 18 hours. His experiences greatly contributed to a scientific understanding of the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body.
  6. 22 March 1996. American astronaut Shannon Lucid completed a 188-day, 4-hour stay in orbit on Mir, setting the record for the longest stay in orbit by a woman.
  7. 12 January 1997. American astronaut Jerry Linenger arrived for 132 days on Mir. During his stay, he became the first American to conduct a spacewalk from a foreign station and the first person to test the Russian-built Orlan-M spacesuit. There were also challenges during Linenger’s stay, including a fire and a loss of attitude control that led the Mir into an uncontrolled “tumble” through space.
  8. 25 June 1997. A Progress resupply module collided with the space station’s Spektr module during docking. The British-American astronaut and astrophysicist on board, Michael Foale, advised ground control how to stop the resulting roll by making calculations based on how the stars were moving through the window.
  9. 2 July 1998. Russia announced the end of Mir, following the return of the final Shuttle-Mir mission on 12 June. The final Russian cosmonauts left Mir on 16 June 2000.

How Did Mir End?

With the first module of the ISS launched in 1998, there was no longer funding for Mir and Roscosmos announced it would be deorbited. While there was a global concern that the station might crash into populated areas, eventually, the only fragments of the spacecraft that didn’t burn on reentering Earth’s atmosphere sunk into the South Pacific Ocean, east of New Zealand. This final installment of Mir’s saga came on 23 March 2001.

What Is Mir’s Legacy?

Mir was significant as it was an area where the U.S. and Russia tentatively cooperated at the end of the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR had previously been engaged in a heated space race for dominance in spaceflight technology, but that eased with the cooperative Apollo-Soyuz test project in 1972. That continued with the start of the Shuttle-Mir program, where Russia and the U.S. agreed to share knowledge for the benefit of all. European astronauts also visited Mir throughout its life.

Mir’s efforts paved the way for today’s ISS, the world’s largest structure ever in space, which has had crews aboard continuously since 2000. With 15 countries cooperating on a daily basis to operate it, the lessons learned have been political as well as operational, technical, and scientific. ISS was designed for 30 years of life, through 2028.

Learn more about space exploration in former astronaut Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass.