'A Real Thrill': 20 Years Since the Second Shuttle-Mir Docking Mission (Part 1)

Becoming the first Canadian to operate the shuttle's Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS), Chris Hadfield installs the Docking Module (DM) atop the Orbiter Docking System (ODS), ahead of the shuttle's second docking mission to Mir, 20 years ago this month. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Becoming the first Canadian to operate the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS), Chris Hadfield installs the Docking Module (DM) atop the Orbiter Docking System (ODS), ahead of the shuttle’s second docking mission to Mir, 20 years ago this month. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

The second is rarely remembered in the same vein as The first. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot upon the Moon—despite his accomplishments to bring space exploration issues to the forefront of popular consciousness—will remain forever overshadowed by Neil Armstrong, the first human to leave his bootprints in the dusty lunar regolith. Al Shepard, the second man to voyage beyond Earth’s “sensible” atmosphere, is said to have fumed that “We had ’em by the short hairs and we gave it away”, when the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space ahead of him. And, looking to the future, we must wonder if the second human to walk on Mars be remembered with the same adulation as the first? Twenty years ago, next week, Space Shuttle Atlantis roared into orbit on the second of nine docking missions to Russia’s Mir station. The basic mandate of STS-74 had been trialed earlier in 1995, by Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson’s STS-71 crew, and at first glance it might be supposed that the second shuttle-Mir docking would fall into obscurity. Yet the importance of STS-74 was that it enabled each of the missions which followed and became the only shuttle flight to add a major element of structural hardware to Mir. At the same time, it flew during the November 1995 U.S. Government furlough and, with the Johnson Space Center (JSC) newsroom shut down for several days, many mission events were unavailable in real time.

Originally scheduled to launch on 11 November, STS-74 would follow its predecessor in that it would dock onto Mir by means of the station’s Kristall module. In order to provide better clearances for the shuttle, Kristall had been robotically relocated to Mir’s forward longitudinal port in advance of the STS-71 mission, but this configuration was not ideal, because this particular docking interface was preferred for crewed Soyuz-TM or unpiloted Progress spacecraft, rather than permanent modules. In the aftermath of STS-71’s departure, Kristall was thus moved from its longitudinal interface to one of the radial ports on Mir’s forward multiple docking adapter, where it would remain to support a further eight shuttle dockings through mid-1998. However, in order to provide sufficient clearance for the shuttle and for Mir’s expansive solar arrays, in November 1993 NASA and the Russian Space Agency initiated conceptual discussions for a Docking Module (DM), to be installed at the end of Kristall. By mid-1994, a blueprint for the DM had been finalized and in February of the following year Russia’s Energia design bureau began the module’s final assembly and completed its functional testing by May.

The STS-74 crew consisted of Commander Ken Cameron (front right), Pilot Jim Halsell (front left) and Mission Specialists (from left) Bill McArthur, Jerry Ross and Chris Hadfield. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

The STS-74 crew consisted of Commander Ken Cameron (front right), Pilot Jim Halsell (front left) and Mission Specialists (from left) Bill McArthur, Jerry Ross and Chris Hadfield. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

On 7 June, aboard an Antonov An-124 cargo airlifter , the 9,000-pound (4,100 kg) DM—together with associated Ground Support Equipment (GSE), a portion of a training mockup for the new module and a pair of new solar arrays for Mir—arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for processing. Described by Tommy Holloway, then-manager of NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) Phase 1 Program Office, as “very important to the reconfiguration of Mir for future joint operations”, the DM was immediately transferred into the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF), becoming the first piece of hardware ever readied for launch there. Meanwhile, the two solar arrays were stowed onto the side of the DM, for installation onto Mir during a subsequent mission, and eventually the entire hardware was moved into the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building and from thence to the launch pad to be loaded aboard Atlantis.By September, the DM had been secured into the shuttle’s payload bay in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF)—which today supports NASA’s future Commercial Crew and other vehicles, including Boeing’s Starliner—and held in place by a trio of side latches and one keel latch. The task of the STS-74 crew was to unberth the DM using Atlantis’ Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm and attach it to the top of the Orbiter Docking System (ODS) in the payload bay, ahead of linking up to Kristall. When the time came, later in the mission, to depart Mir, the shuttle would undock at the ODS-DM interface, leading the new module in place on Kristall for future missions.

Measuring 15.4 feet (4.7 meters) long and 7.2 feet (2.2 meters) wide, the cylindrical DM was equipped with identical Androgynous Peripheral Docking System (APDS) mechanisms at each end, compatible with both the shuttle and Mir. Its exterior was protected from the punishing thermal and radiation environment of low-Earth orbit by a bright orange Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) shield and a layer of screen vacuum thermal insulation. “The color was not chosen for the purpose of blaring to the Americans, rather insultingly, that This is where you park,” explained NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger in his memoir, Off the Planet, “but because the orange solar blanket was found in some Russian warehouse and, in order to cut costs, used instead of manufacturing a new white blanket. In any case, the glowing orange could not be missed!”

Equally hard to miss were the STS-74 crew themselves, who wore bright, pumpkin-orange Launch and Entry Suits (LES) for their journey to and from orbit. Announced in September 1994, a year before liftoff, the crew was led by Commander Ken Cameron, who had earlier served as NASA’s first manager of operations at the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow. He was joined by Pilot Jim Halsell and Mission Specialists Jerry Ross, Chris Hadfield—who would go on to become the first Canadian citizen to command the International Space Station (ISS)—and Bill McArthur.

On the cusp of daybreak, Atlantis rockets into orbit on 12 November 1995. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

On the cusp of daybreak, Atlantis rockets into orbit on 12 November 1995. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

An opening launch attempt on 11 November 1995 was postponed by 24 hours, due to poor weather at one of the Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites, which proved disappointing for the five astronauts, who had lain uncomfortably on their backs in the shuttle’s cockpit for more than two hours, before the scrub was called at T-5 minutes. Next morning, however, no difficulties were incurred. Awakened before midnight, the crew showered, breakfasted and donned their LES ensembles, before heading to Pad 39A and the heavily-xenon-floodlit sight of Atlantis. At 7:30:43 a.m. EST, right on the opening of a precisely-timed 609-second “launch window”, STS-74 rocketed into the clear Florida sky on a mission originally baselined to last six days, but subsequently expanded to eight days in duration. “Buckboard-rough” was Halsell’s description of riding the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) for the inaugural two minutes of the ascent to orbit. The liftoff occurred just seven days after the landing of Atlantis’ sister ship, Columbia, following STS-73, setting a new shuttle landing-to-launch record which would remain unbroken for the remainder of the fleet’s 30-year history.

Over the following hours, the shuttle was configured from a rocket into a spacecraft, the payload bay doors were opened and Cameron—who, as a Marine Corps colonel, maintained a tight and tidy ship during STS-74—and Halsell executed the first of several maneuvers to prepare for the Mir docking, some 65 hours after launch, on 15 November. The next task centered on Hadfield, whose eventual career would make him Canada’s first spacewalker and first ISS Commander, who on STS-74 became the first of his countrymen to operate the shuttle’s 50-foot-long (15.2-meter) RMS arm in orbit.

It was an event which Hadfield later described as “a real thrill”, but as STS-74 would demonstrate, the thrills of a space mission kept coming.

 

The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

 

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