The U.S. shuttle Atlantis on Wednesday sped toward a first-ever linkup with Russia’s Mir space station, an historic encounter that would mark the beginning of a new era of cooperative space exploration.
Overnight, the shuttle crew was on a course that would permit docking with the Russian outpost this morning at about 9 a.m. EDT.
If the three years of preparation by diplomatic and technical experts from the two countries unfolds successfully, Atlantis commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson and Mir commander Vladimir Dezhurov will reach across the transom separating their joined ships for a handshake about two hours later.
“I very much feel a sense of history,” Gibson said on the eve of the encounter.
Spacecraft from the two countries have joined only once previously. On July 17, 1975, astronaut Tom Stafford and cosmonaut Alexey Leonov greeted one another during a brief thaw in the nations’ long Cold War. They represented a three-man U.S. Apollo crew and a two-man Soviet Soyuz crew that conducted two days of diplomatic exchanges.
Atlantis will bring together a total of 10 astronauts and cosmonauts - seven aboard the shuttle and three aboard the 9-year-old Mir station - the most Earthlings ever under one roof in space.
Individually, the spacecraft are impressive in their size and mass - 150 feet by 110 feet and 123 tons for Mir, 122 feet by 70 feet and 105 tons for Atlantis. In combination, the two spacecraft are unlikely to be exceeded in size until the United States and Russia lead an international team in the assembly of a new space station, starting in late 1997.
After blasting off Tuesday, the shuttle crew began a series of maneuvers to close an orbital gap of nearly 8,000 miles between the two ships. Overnight, those maneuvers were to slow the shuttle’s approach, placing Atlantis just below and a half-mile away from Mir.
Gibson, co-pilot Charles Precourt and flight engineer Greg Harbaugh will ease Atlantis along the home stretch, using laser beams and a high-frequency radio link to the Mir crew to gauge their velocity and distance.
They will halt the advance for more than an hour about 270 feet from Mir, so that flight control teams at Houston’s Johnson Space Center and the Russian control center in Kaliningrad can confer on whether or not to proceed.
On Wednesday, the Atlantis crew successfully completed a series of preparations for the linkup, including the temporary activation of the bus-sized Spacelab module in the shuttle’s cargo bay that will function as a medical lab for the space station crew.
Most of the checkout went well. But the astronauts discovered an absence of batteries for a pair of hand-held laser guns they planned to use as backups to the primary laser range finder in the shuttle’s cargo bay.
The U.S. and Russian space agencies plan to keep the two spacecraft joined for nearly five days of crew and equipment exchanges and medical research.