'Houston, Atlantis, We Have Capture': 20 Years Since the First Shuttle-Mir Docking Mission (Part 1)

Space Shuttle Atlantis, as viewed through one of Mir's windows, during the extraordinary docking mission in June 1995. Photo Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Atlantis, as viewed through one of Mir’s windows, during the extraordinary docking mission in June 1995. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty years after the remarkable flight of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP)—which saw U.S. astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand, and Deke Slayton work together in orbit for a handful of days with Soviet cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov—the two superpowers joined forces again for the dawn of the Shuttle-Mir Program. As part of a wide-ranging effort to bring the United States and Russia together in the International Space Station (ISS) partnership, and to expose U.S. astronauts to long-duration flights for the first time since Skylab, as well as providing the shuttle with its first opportunity to rendezvous and physically dock with an Earth-circling space station, in June 1995 the crew of STS-71 exchanged crews aboard the Mir orbital outpost and marked a new era of co-operation, which, despite numerous political and other difficulties, endures to this very day.

In the aftermath of ASTP, simmering distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union caused attitudes toward co-operation to cool markedly, and early hopes of staging a shuttle docking mission to one of the Salyut space stations in the early 1980s never bore fruit. Such a proposal—together with another which might have seen a cosmonaut aboard an early Spacelab flight—had first been considered as early as May 1975, and the possibility was explored in mid-1977 by NASA Acting Administrator Alan Lovelace and Anatoli Aleksandrov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Further meetings raised the likelihood that it might happen, and, in April 1978, Flight International suggested that it could take place as early as 1981, but the deteriorating geopolitical situation, worsened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, rapidly chilled relations between the temporary allies.

A little over a decade later, the Soviet bloc was on the brink of political collapse and the risk of Russia haemorrhaging technology to undesirable locations, such as Iran, prompted the United States to foster co-operation in space. Several U.S. scientific instruments were flown aboard Soviet satellites, and in July 1991 U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to fly a Russian cosmonaut aboard the shuttle and an American astronaut for several months aboard Mir. “The purpose of the exchange of flights is to conduct life sciences research of mutual interest,” NASA explained. “It would advance current efforts to standardize in-flight medical procedures, which would improve comparability of data taken by each side.”

In the early 1990s, Mir was the world's only operational space station. In February 1995, it was visited for a rendezvous by shuttle mission STS-63, in readiness for the actual docking on STS-71. Photo Credit: NASA

In the early 1990s, Mir was the world’s only operational space station. In February 1995, it was visited for a rendezvous by shuttle mission STS-63, in readiness for the actual docking on STS-71. Photo Credit: NASA

By mid-1992, the Soviet Union had fallen, to be replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States and a fragile Russian Federation, headed by President Boris Yeltsin. In June 1992, he and Bush laid out plans for cosmonauts to fly aboard the shuttle, together with a docking mission in mid-1995 and at least one long-duration mission, lasting about 90 days, by a U.S. astronaut. The situation moved rapidly, with Atlantis was already earmarked for the required modifications to support a Mir docking. Further meetings through the summer and fall led to agreements to fly a pair of cosmonauts—Sergei Krikalev and Vladimir Titov—on two shuttle missions, and in November 1992 NASA began to look seriously at Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft as a possible crew return vehicle for the nascent space station. And in April 1993, Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton agreed to stage not one, but several long-duration U.S. visits to Mir, two of which would run for 90 days, followed by up to four others, each lasting around six months. Moreover, it was agreed that Russia’s upcoming Spektr and Priroda modules would be utilized heavily for U.S. scientific research.

In September 1993, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed to initiate “Phase One” of ISS co-operation, through the Shuttle-Mir Program, which would involve 21 months of total U.S. astronaut time aboard the space station. By December, the U.S., European, Japanese, and Canadian elements of the ISS—which formerly constituted the bones of Space Station Freedom—had been merged with Russia’s planned Mir-2. Under the provisions of these agreements, Phase Two would realize the actual construction of the ISS, whilst Phase Three would see its full operation as a permanently-staffed international facility for scientific research. Under the language of the agreement reached by Gore and Chernomyrdin, the first shuttle-Mir mission would be STS-71 in June 1995, which would mark the first of up to 10 such flights.

In February 1994, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev became the first Russian to participate in a U.S. shuttle mission on STS-60, and, a year later, in February 1995, his fellow countryman Vladimir Titov flew aboard STS-63 on a rendezvous mission to Mir. The latter was a key preparatory step in the planning of STS-71 and marked the first occasion that the shuttle had made rendezvous with such a massive object in space. In the meantime, U.S. astronauts Norm Thagard and Bonnie Dunbar had been assigned as prime and backup crew members for the first long-duration flight to Mir, and in June 1994 the joint crew—or rather crews—of STS-71 were assigned. The core shuttle crew comprised Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson, Pilot Charlie Precourt, and Mission Specialists Ellen Baker, Greg Harbaugh, and Bonnie Dunbar, with Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin joining them for the journey to Mir and Thagard and Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov accompanying them back to Earth from Mir.

The combined crews of Mir and STS-71. From row (from left) are Vladimir Dezhurov, Robert "Hoot" Gibson and Anatoli Solovyov, with Norm Thagard, Gennadi Strekalov, Greg Harbaugh, Ellen Baker, Charlie Precourt, Bonnie Dunbar and Nikolai Budarin standing. Photo Credit: NASA

The combined crews of Mir and STS-71. From row (from left) are Vladimir Dezhurov, Robert “Hoot” Gibson, and Anatoli Solovyov, with Norm Thagard, Gennadi Strekalov, Greg Harbaugh, Ellen Baker, Charlie Precourt, Bonnie Dunbar, and Nikolai Budarin standing. Photo Credit: NASA

Also in June 1994, contracts were signed by Gore and Chernomyrdin, under which the United States would pay $400 million for up to 21 months of U.S. astronaut time aboard Mir, up to nine shuttle docking missions after STS-71, a specialized docking module, and the exclusive use of the station’s Spektr and Priroda modules for research. Specifically, about 2,500 pounds (1,130 kg) of scientific equipment would be aboard Spektr for Norm Thagard’s mission. In spite of fierce criticism, which noted the increased cost of working with the Russians, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin countered that “auditors cannot put a price tag on the intangible benefits of international co-operation,” adding that it was “good foreign policy and … good space policy.”

However, the severe economic downturn suffered by Russia during this timeframe—worsened by the October 1994 collapse of the ruble—was felt severely in its space program, and Spektr, originally scheduled for a February 1995 launch, ahead of Thagard’s arrival in March, found itself delayed until no earlier than May. In effect, Thagard would spend the majority of his 90-day mission aboard Mir without most of the equipment he needed for his expansive research program. At length, on 1 June, Spektr docked successfully at Mir’s forward longitudinal port and was subsequently transferred robotically to its final location on the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s multiple docking adapter. This, in turn, allowed for the transfer of the Kristall module, onto which STS-71 would dock, from the nadir interface to the port-side of the adapter.

By this point, and bearing in mind Russia’s insistence that Spektr required at least a month of on-orbit checkout before the shuttle visit, the launch of STS-71 had been postponed until no sooner than 19-24 June 1995. The technological and human success of the joint mission would make it, arguably, the most important spaceflight of the 1990s, from an international co-operation perspective. In accomplishing it, STS-71 would dock with an Earth-orbiting space station and exchange crew members, support shared scientific research and form a critical first step in the path to today’s ISS. In fact, the ramifications of STS-71 can still be heard in the successful U.S.-Russian partnership, which continues to endure, even in the second decade of the 21st century. In the words of Dan Goldin, STS-71 heralded nothing less than “a new era of friendship and co-operation between our two countries.”

 

The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

 

 

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