March 20, 2001 -- When the Mir space station streaks down to Earth, tourists in a plane nearby won't be in the way, says the operator of the tour. But the Russian space agency isn't too sure.
The airplane will stay at least 200-300 miles away from the plummeting space station, according to Marc Herring, president of Herring Media Group, which is running the "Mir Reentry Observation Expedition" for space enthusiasts.
"It would be foolhardy and extremely dangerous to approach the splashdown zone," says Herring.
Some 50 people have paid to watch from an airplane as the Mir space station falls to Earth. But the plane will not even take off until the Russian space agency has begun the first of three braking maneuvers to bring the spacecraft into the atmosphere. The space agency says Mir will tentatively begin its final plunge late Thursday, ET, which would bring the station down early Friday morning, ET.
The plane will only be half-full, so those aboard can all peer out from the same side of the plane.
"If we are lucky, we will see the five major pressurized modules explode, creating a series of bright meteor-like streaks and smoke trails with bright heads and tails of varying length," says the Web site for Herring Media Group, which is running the tour.
No Destination Yet
The aircraft will not enter the splashdown zone, Herring says, but rather will position itself in the air based on projections supplied by the Russian space agency.
Herring says about 50 participants paid an average of $6,500 for the opportunity to witness the 135-ton station's final moments. Up to 20 tons of debris are expected to survive the intense heat of re-entry and hit Earth's surface.
"Our intention is to watch [Mir] travel across the horizon," he says. "It'll be just this phenomenal illumination of smoke and debris." The group also plans to post video of the re-entry on its Web site, Mirreentry.com, after the event.
Herring says the aircraft, carrying tourists, reporters and former Russian cosmonauts, will take off from Fiji once the Russian space agency has given the coordinates.
Russia Cautions Tour Group
Tourism to witness celestial events, such as solar eclipses, has been popular for years, but those tours usually know where they need to be and when.
So far, no one, not even Russian mission control, knows where wreckage from the Mir will land — or exactly where it will enter the atmosphere. The Russian space agency will aim the space station at an uninhabited 6,000-square-mile swath of the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Chile.
Yuri Koptev, director of the Russia space agency, agrees that a trip to the splashdown zone would be risky.
"People used to kill themselves by jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge," Koptev told The Associated Press recently. "These people are driven by a spirit of adventure, but we would recommend that they not go there."
Herring insists the trip is safe because the plane will not enter the designated splashdown zone and will never be closer than 200-300 miles from the incoming debris. He also says the aircraft will not cross the path of the falling space station, but fly parallel to it.
"We'll be in constant contact with the Russian flight control," says Herring.
The U.S. Space Command, which will observe the Russian operation and share data with the Russians, does not condone the expedition to watch Mir's final moments.
"We're not advising them and we're going to stay out of it," says Maj. Perry Nouis, spokesman for the U.S. Space Command. "We'll be anxious to see what, if anything, they come up with."
ABCNEWS' Sergiusz Morenc in Moscow contributed to this report.