TERENCE SMITH: Fiery debris streaked across the morning sky today. 15 years after its mission began, the Russian space station Mir plunged to earth to complete one final assignment, its suicidal descent into the South Pacific. Before that fall, this was the last image of the planet that Mir broadcast before transmission broke off for good. The symbolism for the moment struck Americans as well as Russians.
FRANK CULBERTSON: The Mir was an incredibly important project and incredibly successful. You know, who would have thought it would have lasted this long and accomplished so much -- had so many people visit it from so many nations? No one foresaw the joint activity between NASA and Russia. I mean, the first time I saw the shuttle dock to the Mir, I'm thinking, I never in my lifetime expected to see something like this.
TERENCE SMITH: To bring down Mir, which means "peace" in Russian, space officials orchestrated a controlled burn. As shown in this simulated animation from Russia, Mission Control fired engines on the cargo ship docked with Mir to stop its orbit. That in turn sent Mir hurtling toward the Earth at thousands of miles an hour. Most of the 143-ton station burned up on reentry. But some 20 tons of debris landed in the ocean roughly 1,800 miles East of Wellington, New Zealand. The Russian space agency took pride in the fact that the operation went smoothly.
YURI KOPLEV (Translated): I would like to say that today the Russian space program proved that it can carry out unique tasks because firstly, carrying out tasks in space are so complicated. But we controlled the flight precisely until the last minute, the descent and flight down were completely under control.
TERENCE SMITH: When Mir was first launched in 1986, Soviet officials planned to keep it aloft for three years. But Mir's tour of duty was extended, making it the longest- serving spacecraft ever. It has circled the planet more than 87,000 times, conducting numerous scientific experiments over the years.
RICHARD CROWTHER: They've achieved many goals, many goals that the Americans weren't unable to achieve with the previous sky lab. And without Mir, it wouldn't be possible now to have an international space station in orbit.
TERENCE SMITH: Mir served as a temporary home for 104 crew members. Including forty-two Russian cosmonauts and seven American astronauts. The first Americans were warmly greeted in 1995. Most importantly, Mir has provided a window on what it might be like to live in space on a day-to-day basis -- living in space, that is, in quarters not much bigger than a greyhound bus. No one knows that better than Cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent more continuous time in space than anyone: 438 consecutive days-- sometimes taking advantage of a small sauna on board. Scientifically, the ongoing Mir mission has led to advances in technology, space medicine and biology. Astronauts completed more than 16,000 experiments in the ship's labs. American John Blaha grew wheat when he was on board.
JOHN BLAHA: I just planted some new seeds and already they're about three centimeters long, the sprouts.
TERENCE SMITH: But funding for the mission evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the late '90s, crises on Mir became routine. Some critics called it a flying deathtrap.
SPOKESMAN: The fire was basically in this region here, with the flames shooting across this way.
TERENCE SMITH: There was a fire on board, occasional problems with lifesaving systems and then a collision with an unmanned cargo ship in 1997, damaging solar panels and modules. After various attempts to find new funding, including a proposal from the producer of "Survivor" to create a reality- based TV show on board the craft, crew members sealed the hatch for the last time in June. Experts believe that the end of Mir effectively ends Russia's long commitment as a leader of in space exploration. But Russia is not abandoning space travel altogether. It is a partner in the new international space station.