Twenty years ago, today, on 27 June 1995, a new era began. Space Shuttle Atlantis rocketed into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, as she had done 13 times previously, over the course of almost a full decade. Since her maiden voyage, she had embarked on a chequered career, flying more classified Department of Defense assignments than any of her sister orbiters, delivering both the Magellan and Galileo planetary spacecraft on their long voyages to Venus and Jupiter, supporting multiple Extravehicular Activities (EVAs), and deploying more than a dozen discrete satellites for science, reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering, and communications. Yet on 27 June 1995, Atlantis’ mission was quite different, for STS-71 would attempt a feat for which the shuttle had always been intended: the docking and exchange of crew members aboard an Earth-circling space station. What could hardly have been anticipated, just a few years earlier, however, was that she would dock not at the U.S.-led Space Station Freedom … but at Russia’s Mir orbital outpost. The remarkable 10 days of STS-71 would cement an unlikely partnership which, despite political differences, endures to this day.
As described in last week’s AmericaSpace history articles, Atlantis was very much in the right place at the right time to become the first shuttle to be outfitted with the Orbiter Docking System (ODS) and associated instrumentation for missions to Mir. In the summer of 1992, shortly before her STS-46 mission, she was preparing to be withdrawn from service for a protracted period of maintenance and refurbishment at Rockwell International’s facility in Palmdale, Calif. According to NASA’s January 1992 shuttle manifest, Atlantis was expected to be out of service for a few months, receiving her modifications at KSC, ahead of flying the STS-57 mission. However, by late June 1992—following the first U.S.-Russian shuttle-Mir agreements, signed between NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and Director-General of the Russian Space Agency Yuri Koptev—it was announced that Atlantis would undergo her modifications in Palmdale, thus allowing the KSC workforce to concentrate on processing her sister orbiters for their missions. The shuttle-Mir enhancements required a more protracted out-of-service period for Atlantis, and she finally returned to flight on STS-66 in November 1994.
Seven months later, on 29 June 1995, two days in her STS-71 mission, Atlantis docked smoothly with the Kristall module of Russia’s Mir space station, to applause from both the U.S. and Russian Mission Control Centers (MCC). Aboard the shuttle were seven spacefarers—a “core” NASA crew of Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson, Pilot Charlie Precourt, and Mission Specialists Ellen Baker, Greg Harbaugh, and Bonnie Dunbar, together with Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin, who were about to begin a multi-month stay on Mir—whilst on the other side of Kristall’s hatch, inside the station itself, was a joint U.S.-Russian team of three men. Launched in March 1995, the incumbent Mir crew consisted of Commander Vladimir Dezhurov, his Russian crewmate Gennadi Strekalov, and U.S. astronaut Norm Thagard, the latter of whom had recently set a record for the longest single space mission ever undertaken by an American citizen. On 9 June, Thagard surpassed the 84-day accomplishment of the final Skylab crew, and by the time he returned to Earth aboard STS-71 he would have spent 115 days aloft on a single flight, and, when combined with his four earlier shuttle missions, would secure a new cumulative record for U.S. space experience of 140 days in orbit.
However, immediately after docking, everyone’s attention was upon other matters, as pressurization and leak checks were conducted between Atlantis and Mir. In his NASA oral history, Precourt remembered floating into the ODS and spotting Dezhurov, Strekalov, and Thagard through the porthole. “The hatch is already open and we’re doing pressure checks with our hatch,” he recalled, “and our hatch opens last, to physically give us access, so you can look through this little porthole and wave to the guys on the other side and you can see that they’re really antsy for us to open our hatch.” In the aftermath of the leak checks, the hatch was finally opened and in a highly symbolic gesture—and offering a tip of the hat to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), two decades earlier—the commanders of Atlantis and Mir, Gibson, and Dezhurov shook hands and exchanged smiles and greetings at the interface between the ODS and Kristall.
Precourt’s first glimpse of Norm Thagard in the flesh was a comical one. “Norm,” the newcomes shouted, “you guys are upside down!”
“Naw,” retorted Thagard, by now accustomed to microgravity, after more than three months in free-fall. “You guys are upside down!”
After all seven STS-71 crew members had boarded Mir, the 10-strong group assembled for a televised welcoming ceremony. On that same day, 29 June 1995, their respective responsibilities shifted. After moving their personal gear and specially molded seat liners over to the Soyuz TM-21 spacecraft—which had been docked at Mir since March—Solovyov and Budarin immediately became the 19th long-duration crew of the aging station. Meanwhile, Dezhurov, Strekalov, and Thagard moved directly over to the shuttle and became STS-71 crew members for their eventual return to Earth.
For the next five days, more than twice as long as the joint operations had lasted on ASTP, the Atlantis-Mir combo circled Earth in a tight, mechanized embrace. During that period, medical samples from Thagard’s research, including disks and cassettes, over 100 urine and saliva samples, 30 blood samples, 20 surface samples, 12 air samples, numerous water samples, and even breath samples were transferred to the shuttle. A broken computer from Mir was also removed, and about 990 pounds (450 kg) of water, generated by Atlantis for waste system flushing and electrolysis, was loaded into Russian tanks and moved over to the station for use by Solovyov and Budarin. Additionally, EVA tools for the repair of a solar array on Mir’s Spektr module were transferred and oxygen and nitrogen from Atlantis’ environmental control system were used to raise air pressure on the station to improve its consumables margins.
In the rear of the shuttle’s payload bay, connected to the middeck and ODS by means of a pressurized tunnel, was the Spacelab module, flying for the first—and only—occasion aboard Atlantis. It was utilized for 15 shuttle-Mir research experiments on Dezhurov, Strekalov, and Thagard, with the studies led by Baker. These included six metabolic investigation, focusing on a range of physiological responses in the long-duration crew members’ bodies, in order to ascertain how fluids redistributed themselves during extended spaceflights. The three men participated in efforts to understand whether prolonged microgravity exposure might impair their ability to mount an antibody response and if their immune cells had been altered in any way. Other experiments employed Russian and U.S. Lower Body Negative Pressure (LBNP) apparatus to assess their usefulness as countermeasures to the kind of “orthostatic intolerance” frequently reported by astronauts and cosmonauts upon their return to terrestrial gravity conditions.
As part of this research, Dezhurov, Strekalov, and Thagard would return to Earth in a reclining position, aboard custom-molded recumbent seats in Atlantis’ middeck, with changes in their heart rates, blood pressure, voices, and posture continuously monitored through re-entry and landing. As part of ongoing neurosensory investigations, the crew measured muscle tone, strength, and endurance by electromyography, and utilization of oxygen during 1-2 hours of daily walking or running on a treadmill, together with other exercise sessions. Microbial samples were taken from both Mir and the shuttle, as well as specimens from the crew themselves, in order to determine if the closed environment of a spacecraft or space station affected microbial physiology and its interaction with humans in orbit. Muscle co-ordination and mental agility were also monitored.
The Spacelab module also supported a variety of other experiments. It provided a means to return the pre-fertilised Japanese quail eggs to Earth, following their launch aboard a Progress resupply craft in April 1995, and to deliver new sensors to Mir for the station’s on-board greenhouse. A series of several hundred protein crystal growth investigations, frozen in a thermos-bottle-like vacuum dewar, were delivered to Mir for the next four months; it was intended that they would be retrieved and brought back to the ground by the second shuttle-Mir crew, during STS-74 in November 1995.
Early on 30 June, with the Russian tricolor and U.S. flags as a backdrop in the Spacelab module, the crews exchanged gifts, including the ceremonial joining of a halved pewter medallion, which bore a relief image of the docked shuttle-Mir combination. A 1/200-scale model of the two spacecraft was also joined, with the intention that both gifts would be presented to U.S. and Russian heads of state after the mission. Furthermore, a proclamation was signed by all 10 astronauts and cosmonauts, certifying the date and time of docking, which declared that “The success of this endeavor demonstrates the desire of these two nations to work co-operatively to achieve the goal of providing tangible scientific and technical rewards that will have far-reaching effects to all people of the planet Earth.”
After a brief, but intense, five days of joint activity, the time inexorably drew nearer to close the hatches and prepare for Atlantis’ return to Earth. Yet even this would produce its own raft of records and accomplishments. Having launched with seven crew members, the shuttle would land—for the first time in its history—with a larger crew of eight. Moreover, STS-71 would be the first shuttle mission to return to Earth carrying different crew members from those with which it had launched. And it would be the first shuttle flight to feature as many as 10 discrete crew members.
Perhaps most significant, though, was that—unlike ASTP, two decades before—STS-71 represented just the start of nine shuttle-Mir docking missions, more than two consecutive years of U.S. long-duration presence aboard the station and, despite political, technical, and very human difficulties along the way, the cementing of a real partnership between two old foes. That partnership has weathered much turmoil, particularly in the second decade of the present century, and yet has endured as a testament to those who made it possible.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.