TIME space correspondent Jeffrey Kluger says the Russians have finally agreed that their scarce funds would be better spent elsewhere. "With the Russians' delays holding up the U.S.-led International Space Station, the Americans have been pushing for this for a while," he says. "It should have happened three years ago, but the Russians kept it taped together until now out of pride." Chuckle not, NASA -- the ISS, already late and over budget before it's even habitable, should have half Mir's luck. "Say what we will about Mir's jalopy days, next spring will be 14 years for a station intended to last only five," says Kluger. "Most of those years were smooth and uneventful." Now Mir's current crew will be its last. The three cosmonauts will abandon ship in August after installing a new computer allowing ground controllers to command the station remotely. From that point Mir's orbit, currently about 240 miles above Earth, will begin to tighten. When it reaches 125 miles, the Russians will pick an ocean -- unlike Skylab, which NASA dangerously allowed to deorbit itself -- and send the 120-ton station its final command. And then, says Kluger, "the last vestiges of the Russian space empire will be gone, which I guess is why they've been so reluctant to let go."
After 13 years in orbit, the world's first -- and greatest -- orbiting jalopy has been scheduled for a Viking funeral. Russian space officials announced Tuesday that unless private funding (Donald Trump? Michael Jackson?) comes to the rescue, the space station Mir will be abandoned to die a fiery death in the Earth's atmosphere sometime in spring 2000.