On March 19, 2001 the Russian Space Station Mir disappeared from low earth orbit. There was no collision or explosion; one minute it was there and the next it wasn’t. For twenty-four panicked hours a select group of scientists, intelligence agents, and government officials worked tirelessly to simultaneously figure out what had happened, and prevent the general public from discovering that anything had occurred at all.
Exactly one day later, Mir reappeared in the precise location it had last been observed. It was relatively unchanged but for one major exception: the space station, which had been unoccupied for months in preparation of de-orbiting, was now inhabited.
The fact that you’ve never heard of this event proves the cover up was successful; figuring out the cause of the anomaly, and what happened aboard Mir during the twenty-four hours it was missing, is an entirely different matter.
I know all this because I was a part of it: I was there in Roscosmos Mission Control on that day in March so long ago. I’ve never told a single soul this story, but I’m an old man now and my time left on this planet is short and growing shorter. Humanity needs to hear the truth before there’s no one left alive to tell it.
In the days leading up to the anomaly there had been a distinct sense of gloom hanging over the mission control room. Everyone one of us had dedicated our lives to the space station and now it was all about to come to an unceremonious end.
Mir was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1986, for what was supposed to be a five year mission. Now, fifteen years later, the plucky space station that had survived the end of the Cold War and collapse of the USSR was showing its age. It was cluttered, dirty, worn and rapidly deteriorating when the Russian government decided to finally divert all funds and manpower to the newly built International Space Station. Yet I have to believe that Mir still held a special place in the heart of every Russian who looked up to the stars and dreamed of what was out there.
Multiple attempts were made by various private organizations and individuals to fund the continued existence of the station, or even buy it outright. One entertainment studio even tried to purchase Mir and turn it into an orbital movie and television set. In the end, it proved too expensive to be feasible, leaving us—a skeleton crew of scientists, astronauts, and engineers—to despondently monitor the last few days of the station’s existence. It was like watching a beloved family member wither away in hospice care. I was a member of the Communications Division of Mir Mission Control, once a twenty five member department, now dwindled down to just six essential personnel.
I was home in bed when I received the urgent four a.m. call. A solemn male voice came through the receiver, informing me that an emergency had occurred, and ordering me to report to mission control posthaste. “And comrade,” he added, his voice cracking, “…this is not a test.” Right at that moment, I knew something was very wrong. I dressed as quickly as my shaking hands would allow and rushed to the mission control building.
I arrived to find the normally tranquil control room in a frenzy of activity that verged on panic. My head was spun as we were briefed on the situation. How could this be true? Something as big as a space station doesn’t disappear without a trace; it seemed impossible. We all did our best to be of use, but there wasn’t a whole lot anyone could actually do. All of our tracking systems seemed to indicate that the station had simply ceased to exist; visual inspection of the station’s normal trajectory confirmed this. Washington had also been discreetly contacted and vehemently denied involvement.
Beyond that, what could be done? We activated every radio telescope we could get access to, hoping for a miracle. We even convinced the Americans to clandestinely make use of the Hubble Telescope to aid in a visual search, but it was like looking for one particular grain of sand on all the worlds’ beaches, and we all knew it. The next 24 hours passed in haze of coffee, cigarettes, and sleep deprivation.
Then, twenty four hours to the second after it went missing, Mir suddenly and inexplicably reappeared as if we had collectively wished it back into existence. The monitors showed the station there, intact and seemingly whole, where a moment before there had been nothing but empty space and distant stars. A stunned silence engulfed the room, stretching out for what felt like hours. Then the radio crackled to life and I jumped in my seat, breaking the trance. We were receiving a radio transmission from an unmanned space station that had just reappeared as if by magic: it made no logical sense. The voice that came over the Mission Control speakers was breathless and panicked.
“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! This is Cosmonaut Aleksei Ledovsky attempting to contact Soviet Space Program in Moscow. Please, does anyone read me? Over.”
For a moment no one reacted. It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. My mind was reeling, trying desperately to maintain a grip on reality in this world of sudden insanity. Ledovsky… Aleksei Ledovsky. The name registered with me, I’d heard it somewhere before, but I couldn’t remember where. But there was no time to ponder. We looked at one another in confusion, no one wanting to take responsibility for the situation, no one knowing how to proceed. Finally the director made his way to the communications station to take command.
“Roger, Cosmonaut. We read you loud and clear. This is Yuri Koptev, General Director of the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities.” The soft hiss of static filled the room as we waited for a reply.
“Roscosmos State Corporation? I do not recall… I-I-I’m sorry I do not recognize your name, Mr. Koptev. Is Chief Designer Sergei Korolev with you? I would very much like to speak with him.”
I exchanged a confused look with the operator in the terminal next mine, a small bespeckled man named Yakovlev. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev was a legend, the founding father of the entire Soviet space program and arguably the founder of modern astronomy as a whole. He had also been dead for over 30 years…
The story continues in The Smiling Ones on Space Station Mir eBook, available soon. Sign up for the mailing list for early access (in exchange for an honest review on Amazon when the book is released).