Meanwhile, in Space

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MOSCOW: Mir, Russia's overworked and underfinanced space station, may be landing near you soon. Russian space officials, desperately short on cash, admit that they may have to pull the plug (this time deliberately) on the station as early as this year. "If we don't get the funding soon," says one of Mir's handlers, "who knows when and how we'll have to bring the station down?" Officials insist that there is no cause for alarm. "We can manage the initial descent," says space-agency spokesman Anatoly Tkachyov, describing a plan to drop the station gradually into descending orbits. If its interlocking modules successfully separate, the station will then tumble piece by piece to Earth; Moscow hopes that whatever bits of the 120-ton space station don't burn up in free fall will quietly splash down. It's not coincidental that the talk of pulling Mir from orbit comes just as NASA has wearied of cajoling Moscow to deliver its long-overdue piece of the $20 billion International Space Station. The builders, having received just $22 million of the $300 million pledged, have yet to finish the module that will serve as the astronauts' living quarters, causing consternation throughout the project. "We're not talking about assembling a Lego toy," gripes a NASA official, pointing out that the work the U.S. is undertaking must necessarily follow that done by Russia.