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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Planeload of Tourists Heads for Mir Re-entry Zone

After reluctantly deciding to dump the aging Mir space station, Russian controllers quickly chose a spot for re-entry: a swath of the South Pacific Ocean far, far from the nearest inhabited land.

But it's not off-limits to determined tourists.

Herring Media Group, a Sausalito, California-based public relations firm, has chartered an airplane for a group of space enthusiasts and television crews to fly to the site - a trip Russia's space agency director has compared to a suicide jump off a bridge.

Organizers claim the flight is safe and want to film the spectacle of burning bits of space station debris streaking toward Earth. The 130 metric ton cluster will be the largest man-made object ever to enter the atmosphere.

Once the pride of the Soviet Union, Mir is scheduled to come down Mar. 22 in a target zone about halfway between Australia and Chile, according to Russia's Mission Control.

More than 50 people have paid about $6,500 each, slightly more for a window seat, to see the historic event, according to company director Marc Herring. The price includes a few nights on the Pacific Island of Fiji, a steak barbecue to honor Herring's Texas roots, drinks on the plane and a party once the station is down. Four Russian cosmonauts will be on board to see the fiery death of their former home in space, which they endearingly referred to as an apartment.

"We'll see a bright, meteor-like object on the horizon with a smoke trail coming toward us, then a series of explosions of the pressurized vessels and a glow as the station fragments into multiple parts and rains down," Herring said.

According to Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev, any trip to the target zone would be foolhardy. He stressed that the area was chosen to minimize risk to people and property on Earth, but the space agency couldn't stop people from going there.

"People used to kill themselves by jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge," Koptev said. "Apparently these people are driven by a spirit of adventure but we would recommend that they not go there."

But Herring said the plane, either a jet or a turboprop, should never be closer than about 320 kilometers from the falling space junk.

A navigator will call Russian Mission Control on a satellite phone minutes before the station breaks up, when the final re-entry coordinates are known, and the pilot can skedaddle out of range if necessary, he said.

"It's the sort of thing you shouldn't try at home," Herring said.

The unoccupied station carries a guitar cosmonauts strummed to pass time during their record-setting, long stays in space. Russian Orthodox icons adorn the walls, just as Russian ships were decorated in past centuries. The station carries a library of more than 400 books including Russian classics, detective stories and technical manuals.

These items will likely incinerate in a puff in the upper atmosphere, but about 1,500 chunks of metal weighing a total of about 25 metric tons are expected to survive re-entry, according to Russian space officials.

When the unoccupied U.S. Skylab space station fell to Earth in 1979, debris came down on a sparsely populated area in western Australia, creating sonic booms and whirring noises audible to people on the ground as it fell. No one was hurt.

Web chatrooms about space are buzzing with comments on Mir's demise. One contributor asked if anybody had purchased "Mir insurance," recalling that Skylab insurance was sold in the 1970s. Another much discussed topic: dangerous microbes on the station spreading to earth.

Molds and bacteria live on the station, and one particularly virulent strain has corroded Mir's windows. But the germs pose no danger to Earth's environment, Russian space officials say.

In the months before the Skylab's demise, two American computer specialists established a firm called Chicken Little Associates, offering to predict, for a fee, the likelihood of the station hitting a particular house or point on the Earth's surface. The chances were all minuscule.

This time around in Moscow, the Troika Dialog brokerage, which usually places bets on the gyrations of the Russian stock market, is sponsoring a contest to guess how close the Mir will come to the hometown of one its chief analysts, Tom Adshead, from Christchurch in New Zealand.

New Zealand is not under the station's flight path, and the brokerage stressed that the contest was in jest.