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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crew to Fly on Mir's 13th Anniversary

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- The Mir space station will mark 13 years in orbit Saturday, and a new three-man crew - possibly Mir's last - will lift off for the station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

In a sign that times are tough, two of the three members are fare-paying foreigners. Russian space officials want to keep Mir in orbit for several more years, but it may be abandoned as early as August if the Russians cannot find private donors to pay Mir's expenses, estimated at about $250 million a year.

Russian commander Viktor Afanasyev, French astronaut Jean-Pierre Haignere and Slovak Ivan Bella made final preparations Friday in advance of their Saturday morning liftoff.

Their Soyuz TM-29 capsule is scheduled to dock with Mir two days after taking off.

By sending up two foreigners, Russia has in effect sold off the place on the cramped three-seat Soyuz capsule usually reserved for the flight engineer, the top technical specialist on board.

As a result, Sergei Avdeyev, who has already spent six months in orbit, will stay for another half a year and return in August with Afanasyev and Haignere. Even after spending 359 days in space, he will fall short of the record by 79 days.

Haignere's wife, Claudie Andre-Deshays, 41, France's first woman in space who spent 16 days on Mir in 1996, is Haignere's back up in case he gets sick - and thus was allowed the live in the same isolation facility.

Haignere, 50, an air force pilot who visited Mir for three weeks in 1993, plans two space walks during his mission, to install and remove scientific experiments from Mir's exterior.

Afanasyev, an air force colonel who is also 50, is heading for his third mission on Mir. Bella will return to Earth after eight days with outgoing commander Gennady Padalka.

Afanasyev appeared at a news conference Friday along with his crew and expressed hope that he wouldn't have to close the station.

"We are confident that our mission will not be the final one," he told reporters. "It would be a great pity to discard the station."

Haignere said he hopes to pass time aboard Mir by playing the saxophone and reading the works of 19th-century science fiction writer Jules Verne.

Foreign cosmonauts are an invaluable source of funds for the struggling Mir program.

Slovakia is writing off $20 million of debt in exchange for Bella's flight, and France is paying $20.6 million.