The Light's On but Nobody's Home at Space Station

The crew on board the Mir space station was sealing up the aging craft Friday, sad to think their orbiting home would soon be empty.

A spokesman at mission control said the three-man Russian-French crew had spoken of their sadness at ending Mir's last mission and leaving the 13-year-old craft to fly unmanned before it plunges to Earth next year.

"Every team is sad when it leaves, but this crew is, of course, more sad because normally when one leaves another one follows. But this time they are leaving the craft empty," Valery Lyndin said from mission control in Korolyov near Moscow. "On the other hand, when they return to Earth they will meet their families and close friends."

He said the crew, Russians Viktor Afanasyev and Sergei Avdeyev and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Haignere, were still making final preparations to abandon Mir, which will be retired if vital funds are not found.

They are expected to return to Earth at 4:35 a.m. Saturday, some three hours after they undock from Mir f the last remnant of Russia's once much-vaunted space program.

Mir's final chapter is likely to come in February or March, when a last crew will be sent briefly to prepare to push Mir into a lower orbit and burnout in Earth's atmosphere.

Space experts have doubted the safety of leaving Mir cruising in orbit, saying the crewless craft could plummet to Earth despite a navigation system designed to keep it in orbit.

Mir, which has been left unmanned on two earlier occasions, has become increasingly accident prone, suffering air supply problems, leaks and a collision with a cargo craft in 1997.

Russian officials shrug off the fears. "They have sealed the craft and are getting the system ready for when they leave," Lyndin said. "Everything is fine." and that, of course, is good."