Atlantis and its crew dashed after the Russian space station Mir on Sunday, drawing closer and closer for a tricky - and risky - docking.
When Atlantis catches up to Mir on Wednesday, it will be the first time a shuttle is used in station assembly, providing NASA with much-needed experience for building an international space station.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s children, ages 9, 10 and 12, were excited for their dad, making his first space trip. They had their own big plans, though. They were going to Disney World.
“He gets his trip, we get ours,” explained Hadfield’s wife, Helene.
She described her husband as “happy, happy, happy.”
“He sent me a note that was supposed to be given to me after we couldn’t see him anymore, and in there it said you just know if you watch that little dot (rising shuttle) that what you see is the sun off my teeth because I’m smiling so big,” she said.
Atlantis and the five astronauts began their voyage at 7:30 a.m., rising through low clouds on their way to orbit.
Until the last few minutes of the countdown, it seemed as though the clouds over the launch pad and bad weather at the shuttle emergency landing strips overseas would delay liftoff for the second day in a row. But NASA decided the clouds posed no obstruction, and the sky cleared just in time at two touchdown sites in Spain.
Mir was soaring over the Indian Ocean when Atlantis blasted off. By midday, the two Russians and one German on Mir still had not been informed of the shuttle launch - at least officially - because the station has long periods out of communication range with Russia’s Mission Control. They sought confirmation via ham radio.
The first major step of the 245-mile-high rendezvous comes Tuesday, when Hadfield uses the shuttle robot arm to move the docking port into position for the next day’s linkup with Mir.
This Russian-made port - essentially a 15-foot tunnel with latches on either end - will be left behind on Mir to make the following five shuttle dockings safer and easier to accomplish.