Shuttle Diplomacy Shuttle, Space Station Open New Era Of Cooperation
Like mariners meeting on a vast ocean, the crews of America’s space shuttle Discovery and Russia’s Mir space station had a dramatic rendezvous 245 miles above Earth on Monday, opening a new era of international space cooperation.
The crew of Discovery - including Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Titov - and the three Russians aboard Mir were able to wave to one another through the windows of their spacecraft as the shuttle drew near the looming space station.
Discovery made its closest approach - 37 feet - shortly after 11 a.m. PST.
For the excited Titov, who pressed his face to one of the shuttle’s aft windows and smiled at his colleagues on Mir, it was a homecoming of sorts. He had spent a year aboard Mir in 1988.
“Houston, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in space,” shuttle commander James Wetherbee said as the shuttle approached Mir slowly from below.
The flawless encounter - carried out despite some earlier concerns about a leaky thruster on Discovery - put a human face on growing collaboration between financially stressed space programs in the United States and Russia.
On the same day the Clinton administration proposed a budget that would cut spending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration next year by $100 million, to $14.1 billion, the Mir encounter offered a glimpse of a future in which the world’s two most ambitious space-faring nations could merge their efforts.
The close encounter was an important test of steering, communication and ground support in preparation for a docking at Mir by the shuttle Atlantis in June. That flight will kick off a planned series of seven shuttle-Mir dockings over the next two years, getting ready for the joint U.S.-Russian assembly of an international space station starting in 1997.
“The next time we approach, we will shake your hand and together we will lead our world into the next millennium,” Wetherbee told the Mir cosmonauts as Discovery made its closest approach.
Mir commander Alexander Viktorenko responded that all of the crew members were involved in “the greatest profession God could give anyone.”
Soon after the encounter, President Clinton told the Discovery crew by radio, “This really proves, I think, that Russians and Americans can work together and that we can make this international space station project successful.”
The day featured stunning views of both Discovery and Mir, parts of which have been in orbit since 1986.
When the two craft moved into darkness, flying together at more than 17,000 miles an hour, the lights in the shuttle’s open cargo bay appeared eerily luminous from Mir. There were occasional flashes as the shuttle’s small steering jets were fired.
Discovery made its closest approach as the two spacecraft emerged into daylight far above the Pacific Ocean. After lingering in front of Mir for 10 minutes, the shuttle withdrew to about 400 feet and did a fly-around survey of the space station to help NASA plan future docking.