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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Novella That Doesn't Really End

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"When Mir goes I will cry." — Georgy Grechko, Russian cosmonaut.
"The sky is falling, the sky is falling!" — Chicken Little.


In March 2001, the world prepared for the apocalypse.

The apocalypse was to befall with the descent of the 136-ton Mir space station. Some said the craft would crash on Japan, destroy whole neighborhoods in Australia and pour a deadly rain of space junk across South America. On the way from Australia to South America, it would infect the oceans with a multitude of incurable diseases carried by mutant fungi that could be "especially virulent if mixed with earth varieties that attack metal, glass and plastic." Rumors insinuated that in the caliginous cracks of Mir's paper-thin aluminum walls aliens were lurking.

OK, maybe the aliens bit was pushing it a little. The point is — humanity prepared for the worst.

Japanese authorities ordered the residents of southern Japan to stay indoors. (A rather useless decision since the 1,500 or so Mir fragments — some as big as a car — would be traveling at such a high velocity that they could easily penetrate slabs of concrete 2 or even 3 meters thick.)

Australia developed a national emergency plan. The United States and some European countries prepared to track Mir's descent. South America silently shook in fear.

As in any good Hollywood action flick, Russia kept the world on edge. Russian space officials would pop up on television every now and again reminding the world that there was a 10 percent chance that they could lose control of the space station. A 3 percent chance that it could hit land. A .032 percent chance that it could hit a big city, most likely, somewhere in the Americas.

Cities in the Americas, needless to say, didn't feel very happy with the prospect of being destroyed. But they kept their cool: Immigration officials registered no mass emigration to Europe.

At the same time, the Russians grieved over the imminent death of the 15-year-old pride of the nation's space program. Cosmonauts and space experts scheduled a mourning meeting for the day the station went down. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov even went as far as to beg President Vladimir Putin to give Mir one last chance four days before the spaceship was to be sunk — at a time when Mir had already dropped to an irrecoverably low altitude.

Some members of the community were ignorant, of course. Just a couple of days before the world's end, John Bartle, a Russian studies professor at a New England college, expressed surprise that Mir "hasn't come down yet." Anna Badkhen, a Moscow-based journalist, foolishly made plans to travel to St. Petersburg a week after the apocalypse. She even reserved return tickets. Parties were scheduled for mid-April. Women got pregnant.

And then, D-day came. "Plop! Plop-plop-plop! Plop! Phshhh-shhh-shhhh," went Mir's fiery debris as it hit a land-free strip of the Pacific Ocean. A couple thousand deep-sea fish instantly turned into seafood gumbo.

And that was it.

And the world took a deep breath and began predicting a different type of apocalypse. AIDS. Mad cow disease. Bacteriological weapons. Birth control. Human clones.

Curiously, there were rumors that the aliens that had been hiding in the dark seams of Mir's aluminum walls survived the fall. But that's pushing it a bit, don't you think?

Anna Badkhen is a reporter for the Boston Globe.