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Lucky Cosmonaut Joins Shuttle Crew Now That He’s Survived Several Accidents, Russian Considered A Lucky Charm

On his first trip into orbit, Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Titov almost crashed into a space station. Five months later, he was catapulted off an exploding rocket. Another time, he had to abort a spacewalk when a wrench broke.

Who would want to fly with this guy? Five NASA astronauts for starters. They consider Titov a good-luck charm. After all, he’s still around to talk about his space misadventures.

The six are scheduled to blast off aboard Discovery early Thursday on a mission to rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir. Titov will become only the second Russian to fly on a U.S. space shuttle.

“All the time I said I have good luck because we have two times for bad accident,” Titov said. “Is good luck or bad luck? OK, bad luck if crew has died. That’s bad luck.”

Titov, 48, a cosmonaut since 1976 and a Russian Air Force colonel, has been waiting for this moment for more than three years.

Titov and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev moved to Houston in 1992 to train at Johnson Space Center as part of an astronaut-cosmonaut exchange. Krikalev flew on Discovery in February 1994; Titov was his backup.

Titov will talk by radio to the three cosmonauts aboard Mir as Discovery flies within 35 feet of the 100-ton station. NASA wants the practice before space shuttle Atlantis docks with Mir in June; that will be the first of seven Atlantis-Mir dockings.

During the eight-day flight, Titov will use the shuttle robot arm to release a science satellite and move two spacewalkers around the cargo bay.

Titov has far more experience than his American crewmates: He has spent 368 days in orbit, 366 of them on a single mission.

“He does not push anything of his experience on us. We have to actually draw it out of him,” said astronaut Michael Foale.

Titov admitted he’d feel better if Discovery had an escape system like the one that saved his life in 1983. “But if not, OK, I will feel myself like American astronaut,” he said, smiling.

His first close call occurred in April 1983 during a docking attempt with the Soviet Salyut space station. Lacking rendezvous radar, Titov had to rely on his eyes and ground radar. His spacecraft closed in so fast that Titov, fearing a collision, swerved and aborted the rendezvous.

On his next launch attempt, in September 1983, fire erupted at the base of the Soyuz rocket one minute before liftoff because of an open fuel valve. Burned wires prevented the automatic escape system from kicking in, forcing launch controllers to activate the system via radio commands.

With the rocket engulfed in flames and tilting, the escape module holding Titov and cosmonaut Gennadiy Strekalov was thrown clear. Seconds later, the rocket exploded.

Titov and Strekalov were airborne for 5 1/2 minutes. They landed safely 2 1/2 miles from the pad.

“Anyone who has seen the video of his rocket exploding and him ejecting through the fireball knows what I’m talking about: He’s our good-luck charm,” said Discovery’s commander, James Wetherbee.

Titov finally returned to orbit in December 1987. His wrench snapped during a spacewalk outside Mir. The mission also lasted a year, eight months too long for his taste. He missed his wife and two children. He also missed the world news.

“Four months is best time” for a space flight, Titov said. “It’s enough time for adaptation. It’s enough time for good job. You have enough power. You feel good.”

Titov and cosmonaut Musa Manarov’s 366-day mission was a space endurance record until January, when cosmonaut Valery Polyakov surpassed that mark aboard Mir.

There will be no more long space flights for Titov. He said Russian doctors have restricted him to missions of one month or less to limit his exposure to space radiation. Titov doesn’t mind. In fact, he said, he’s grateful.