Atlantis glided to a landing Friday after the first East-West linkup in orbit in 20 years, bringing home a grateful American who spent an often dreary 3-1/2 months aboard Russia’s space station.
Norman Thagard accepted a call of congratulations from President Clinton before walking from the space shuttle to the amazement of NASA’s flight surgeons, who expected him to be too wobbly. His two Russian comrades from the space station Mir, Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov, were carried from Atlantis on stretchers.
“The Russians took good care of me,” Thagard told the president. “We’re great friends so I think if what we did on a personal level is any indication, there won’t be any problem with this on an intergovernmental level as well.”
Clinton replied: “The next time we have any problem between American and Russian officials I’m going to send them into space. I think I now know how to solve all international problems.”
During the 10-day shuttle mission, Atlantis docked with Mir 245 miles above Earth in a feat of precision flying executed at 17,500 mph. Atlantis delivered a fresh Russian crew to Mir and gave Thagard and his two crewmates a ride back home.
Thagard was by far the hardiest of the three men who spent 115 days in weightlessness. He greeted his wife of 30 years, Kirby, and their three sons with hugs and kisses - standing up, without help.
“He’s a little thin, but he looked great,” Kirby Thagard said in an interview with The Associated Press.
After a 10-minute reunion, Thagard was whisked into a medical lab for blood tests and other exams. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin met him with a hot fudge sundae, keeping a longtime promise. Thagard, who had to stomach breakfasts of canned jellied perch aboard Mir, devoured the sundae. Even while NASA Administrator Dan Goldin was talking about going to Mars, Thagard kept his head down and his spoon moving.
Dezhurov and Strekalov were subjected to similar medical tests after a brief visit with their wives and children and also enjoyed hot fudge sundaes before being flown to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The three men face nearly a month of medical testing. NASA has never had a chance to examine anyone who has spent so long in space; Thagard holds the U.S. space endurance record, though it pales beside the world record of 439 days, held by the Russians.