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Russians set Friday for Mir's final descent

MOSCOW — The Russian space agency on Tuesday set a final firm date for dumping the Mir space station, saying it would be brought down into the South Pacific on Friday by a six-hour series of engine pushes.

The Progress cargo ship docked at the station will fire its engines twice during two consecutive orbits to lower the station. Several hours later, it will fire one last time to send the station hurtling into the South Pacific between Australia and Chile at around 9:30 a.m. Moscow time (1:30 a.m. EST) Friday, said Russian Aerospace Agency spokesman Konstantin Kreidenko.

Mission Control officials say they have conducted 50,000 computer simulations of the descent process to make sure that the station's debris lands in the designated ocean area.

Fearing that Mir's unstable batteries could cause the orbiting station's central computer to fail, Mission Control experts have worked out a backup — using the Progress' onboard computer and separate radio communications.

Yet despite their efforts, space officials have cautioned that the descent of the 143-ton station might still defy their expectations.

Nikolai Anfimov, head of the Central Research Institute of Machine-Building, the leading expert body for the Russian space program, acknowledged Monday there was an outside chance the engines won't supply as much thrust as they should. That could mean the station's wreckage might overshoot the dump zone.

"If an engine impulse is insufficient, the station will fly farther and the southern tip of South America could be affected," he told reporters.

NASA has long urged Russia to discard Mir and concentrate its meager resources on the new International Space Station. Late last year, Russian space officials finally acknowledged that the 15-year-old space veteran had outlived its usefulness and become too costly to fix.

Meanwhile, the space shuttle Discovery faced a windy and rainy forecast that could alter its trip back to Earth with the first crew of the international space station on board.

The shuttle is scheduled to land early Wednesday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But because the weather in Florida for the next two days doesn't look good, NASA is already considering the possibility of a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the backup site, said flight director Wayne Hale.

The newspaper said sinking the Mir was like the Taliban's destruction of towering 3rd and 5th century Buddha statues in Afghanistan.