STAR CITY, Russia (AP) _ The next mission to Russia's Mir space station could be the last, and the aging outpost may finally come down in August, a crew commander said Friday.

Viktor Afanasyev, 50, who will lead the crew due to blast off Feb. 20 for the station, still hopes he won't be the one to bid farewell to the beloved Mir, the pride of Russia's space program for 13 years.

``We hope that we will have a replacement,'' he said at a news conference at Star City, the cosmonauts' training center north of Moscow.

Afsanayev's crew ends its mission on Mir on Aug. 23. After they leave, if no money is found to finance a replacement crew, Mission Control will fire the engines on Mir's cargo ship to send the station plummeting into the ocean.

Afanasyev, a Mir veteran with 357 days logged in two stints on the station, blasts off for Mir from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakstan with French astronaut Jean-Pierre Heignere and Slovak Ivan Bella.

After an eight-day stay, Bella will return to Earth with the Mir's current commander, Gennady Padalka. Padalka's crew-mate, Sergei Avdeyev, will stay aboard with Afanasyev and Heignere through Aug. 23.

NASA has long urged Russia to forgo the Mir and commit its meager resources to the international space station, a 16-nation project that is a year behind schedule because of Russia's failure to build a key segment on time.

The government had planned to discard Mir in June, but the station was given three more years of life when a private sponsor was reportedly found to pay for its operation, rather than the cash-strapped government.

Russia's space chief Yuri Koptev, however, said Thursday that the mysterious investor so far had failed to come up with money.

The station has been running relatively trouble-free since a string of breakdowns and accidents in 1997 that culminated in a near fatal collision with a cargo ship and led many to compare Mir to a rusting jalopy.