ANGWIN, CALIF. ----- The Russian Mir space station is coming
down from outer space in the next few days. Some 20 to 25 tons of it
will fail to burn up on reentry, and the inhabitants of tiny Pitcairn
Island are hoping they are only going to be close enough to the falling debris for a front row seat
rather than right in the middle of the fiery rain of fragments.
That's the hope of the 50 or so people on tiny, one-mile-wide-by-two-miles-long Pitcairn. Debris from the "de-orbiting" of the 135-ton Mir is scheduled to splash down "somewhere between New Zealand and Chile in fragments, some of which could weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
Pitcairn is located roughly midway between New Zealand and Chile, and about 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti in the nowhereness of the South Pacific Ocean.
The British Foreign Office has confirmed that Pitcairn, which is located at latitude 25 degrees 4 minutes south and longitude 130 degrees 6 minutes west, is the closest inhabited island to Mir's intended landing area. But, it points out hopefully, "Pitcairn is still 2,000 miles to the northwest of the landing zone."
"We have confidence the Russians will push the right buttons at the right time so we won't be in danger," a Pitcairner has told the Pitcairn Islands Study Center located at Pacific Union College here.
The landing of Mir's debris relatively near their island isn't the first time the Pitcairners have been mere straws in the international wind. During the years of the 1970s and 80s when the French carried out "dirty" nuclear testing in the atmosphere over Mururoa atoll, only 500 miles from Pitcairn, the islanders had to endure the possible harmful radiation.
As a slight precaution, British Royal Air Force radiological monitors kept watch on Pitcairn during the French tests which extended over a long period of time. "What can we do about it?" the Pitcairners asked at the time. "We are just straws in the wind, with no power to stop them."
Most of the Pitcairners are direct descendants of sailors in 1789 who mutined against Captain William Bligh on H.M.S. Bounty. The mutineers sailed to Pitcairn where for 18 years they lived without the outside world learning of their presence there. The island is the smallest protectorate of Great Britain.