Discovery and its crew glided to a perfect landing Saturday, ending a historic rendezvous mission that cleared the way for NASA to dock with the Russian space station.
“We learned a lot about working with the Russians,” shuttle director Brewster Shaw said. “The flight was extremely successful, and we’re just delighted.”
The next step comes in June when Atlantis actually docks with the orbiting Mir station for a crew swap. NASA rehearsed everything but the docking during the eight-day flight, pulling Discovery within 37 feet of Mir on Monday.
“Astonishing, beautiful machine that they have … truly amazing experience,” shuttle commander James Wetherbee said after landing. “We’re on the right path. This agency is going places and we’re doing it with Russians and I think that’s the right thing to do.
“You can’t feel anything but elated even now that we’re down.”
Wetherbee guided the shuttle through a clear sky onto the runway at Kennedy Space Center just before sunrise in what flight director Wayne Hale called “a picture-perfect landing.”
About 250 people gathered in the early morning chill to welcome Discovery and its six astronauts home.
Watching from afar, via a special TV hookup, were the three cosmonauts aboard Mir.
“The Mir crew just passed along congratulations on your mission,” Mission Control informed Wetherbee shortly after touchdown.
“Spasibo,” Wetherbee replied - Russian for “Thank you.”
Monday’s rendezvous was the first U.S.-Russian meeting in space since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking. NASA wanted to see how the shuttle handled next to the sprawling, 100-ton station. Wetherbee’s conclusion: Beautifully.
Seven Atlantis-Mir dockings are planned through 1997 as a prelude to the construction of an international space station. The United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan plan to start building that station in late 1997.
One of Discovery’s primary thrusters began leaking shortly after liftoff Feb. 3 and nearly ruined the rendezvous. “My heart just sank,” Wetherbee admitted Saturday.
Russian space officials were concerned the leaking fuel might damage Mir. They agreed to the close approach at practically the last minute after three days of intense negotiations.
Shaw said the thruster trouble turned out to be “a special plus.”
“That was, indeed, the purpose of this whole activity: To learn those things and figure out how we’re going to have to deal with each other, how we’re going to operate together, how we’re going to overcome unexpected things that arise,” Shaw said. “Fortunately, we had the opportunity in a very non-threatening way on this mission to do exactly that.”
A preliminary inspection showed Discovery to be in good shape after its 3-1/2 million-mile journey. The leaking jet was shut down two minutes before landing, and nothing spilled.
The shuttle’s crew made U.S. space history in two other ways.
For the first time, a female voice was heard during the crucial phases of descent and landing. Sitting in the right seat of Discovery’s cockpit was Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a NASA spaceship.
Astronaut Bernard Harris Jr. became the first black to walk in space. He and crewmate Michael Foale spent 4-1/2 hours out in the open cargo bay Thursday to evaluate thermal modifications to their suits. The test involved keeping them completely out of sunlight, but their fingers got so cold NASA had to cut the walk short.
Discovery’s crew included former Mir resident Vladimir Titov, the second Russian to fly on a U.S. shuttle.
NASA has one more shuttle flight before Atlantis leaves in June for Mir. Endeavour is scheduled to blast off in early March on a two-week astronomy mission.