For 15 years, Americans and Russians have lived together, on a continuous basis, aboard the International Space Station (ISS). And for several years prior to that, the also occupied the Mir orbital outpost, whose closed quarters provided a training analog for the challenges—which lay ahead, as the grandest enterprise in peacetime engineering in human history rose, literally, from the ground into the heavens. Twenty years ago, next week, in perhaps the closest pre-ISS example of what the new space station might someday provide, eight astronauts and cosmonauts from four sovereign nations—Russia, the United States, Canada and Germany—worked together as the second shuttle-Mir mission delivered a critical Docking Module (DM) to the space station. In the words of Mission Specialist Bill McArthur, “these were folks that we became close friends with on the ground and became lifelong friends with on-orbit”.
As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, STS-74 moved from concept into reality following high-level agreements between NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and Director-General of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Koptev, in December 1993, which expanded upon plans to already stage a single shuttle-Mir mission and fly at least one U.S. astronaut on a multi-month increment to the orbital station. Under the terms of the agreements signed by Goldin and Koptev, as many as ten shuttle-Mir missions would be flown through mid-1998, of which STS-74 would be especially crucial, for it would install the Russian-built DM onto the end of the Kristall module, thereby offering sufficient structural clearance from the station’s solar arrays. Throughout 1994, the DM was developed and built and by the early summer of 1995 had been delivered to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for processing and integration aboard shuttle Atlantis.
The crew of STS-74 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 accompanied by Pilot Jim Halsell and Mission Specialists McArthur, Chris Hadfield—who would go on to become the first Canadian citizen to command the International Space Station (ISS)—and Jerry Ross. On launch morning, 12 November 1995, Ross emerged from the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building, brandishing a camera, which he used to document the dramatic experience of his own journey to the launch pad. Following what Halsell described as a “buckboard-rough” ride into orbit, the crew settled down to two days of transit to reach Mir, during which time Hadfield became the first Canadian ever to operate the shuttle’s 50-foot-long (15.2-meter) Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. He employed the arm to lift the 9,000-pound (4,100 kg) DM out of Atlantis’ payload bay and install it atop the Orbiter Docking System (ODS).
Assisted by Bill McArthur, he also powered up the Orbiter Space Vision System (OSVS) to precisely align the movements of the arm. The OSVS was one of STS-74’s Detailed Test Objectives (DTOs) and comprised a sequence of large dots on the exterior faces of the DM and ODS, which yielded digitized television views and enabled the generation of a laptop computer display to indicate alignments between the two structures with great precision. The astronauts also installed a “centerline camera” in the ODS to support Cameron during proximity operations and docking with Mir and Ross and McArthur checked out their space suits in case a contingency EVA became necessary.
By the late afternoon of 13 November, Atlantis was about 2,000 miles (3,220 km) from Mir and closing at a rate of about 135 miles (220 km) with each 90-minute orbit of Earth. Early on the 14th, Hadfield successfully maneuvered the DM out of the payload bay, pivoted it by 90 degrees into a vertical position, rotated it by almost 180 degrees and moved it to within 5 inches (12.7 cm) of the top of the ODS. He then placed the RMS into a “limp” position, which effectively deactivated the brakes on its joints. At that point, Cameron performed a short, “downward” burst of Atlantis’ Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters and pushed the shuttle towards the DM. When the two spacecraft were rigidly locked into a metallic embrace, the ODS docking ring retracted and a series of hooks and latches engaged to provide an airtight seal. Mating was confirmed at 2:17 a.m. EST. The DM was then pressurized and, at 3:00 a.m., the RMS was ungrappled and moved to an overnight “extended park” position. By this point, the shuttle was 1,450 miles (2,330 km) “behind” Mir, closing at 180 miles (290 km) per orbit.
Back on Earth, however, a crisis was brewing. Conflict between President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich over funding allocations for Medicare, education, environmental monitoring and public health forced a government shutdown when the president vetoed the spending bill. Federal employees were furloughed from 14-19 November and again from mid-December through early January 1996. Since a budget for Fiscal Year 1996 had not been approved, from 1 October 1995 the entire federal government operated on a Continuing Resolution, which authorized interim funding until new budgets were approved. This resolution expired at midnight on 13 November, at which point all non-essential government departments ceased operations in order to prevent them from spending funds which they had not yet been allocated.
Aboard STS-74, and within NASA, the effect was that many non-critical services, including its newsroom, were shut down through the furlough. However, the crew maintained a sense of humor. On a private internet site, dubbed “The Utterly Unofficial STS-74 Mission Guide”, they posted updates and blamed “budget idiocy in Washington”.
The consequence was that very little real-time detail of the events of the second shuttle-Mir docking mission and the joint activities with the station’s crew—Commander Yuri Gidzenko, Germany’s Thomas Reiter and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev—were forthcoming until after STS-74 had returned to Earth on 20 November. Rendezvous and proximity operations along the R-Bar (or “Earth Radius Vector”) broadly followed the same parameters as those pursued by the STS-71 crew, with the exception that in the final moments before docking Ken Cameron was reliant upon the RMS “elbow” camera for visual cues, due to the length of the DM, which partially obstructed his view. It was “like looking at the top of a building from the ground floor”, he said later. “You can see that it’s up there, but you really can’t…accurately judge position or orientation.”
Docking with Mir was accomplished at 1:27:38 a.m. EST on 15 November 1995, a little under three days into the mission. After standard checks of pressure and other parameters, the hatches were opened, Gidzenko and Cameron shook hands in the DM-Kristall tunnel and the eight-strong population of the two crews gathered ceremonially inside Mir. For those few days in November 1995, Mir played host to citizens from no fewer than four sovereign nations for the first time. “Mir was an amazing accomplishment,” Hadfield said later. “It’s very much a child of the Cold War, but it developed in the later years of its life into becoming a real crucible for international space operations.”
Atlantis’ crew transferred over 1,980 pounds (900 kg) of water and supplies over to Mir and brought biomedical and microgravity science experiment samples and faulty equipment aboard the orbiter for return to Earth. Aware that they would likely be the only human visitors for Gidzenko, Reiter and Avdeyev in six months, the STS-74 crew took special care to bring what Hadfield described as “things that would improve the quality of their life…which included ice-cream sandwiches! And I have never seen three grown men eat ice-cream sandwiches as happily as those three guys did!” They also brought up a classical practice guitar, which Hadfield and Reiter strummed. At length, on 18 November, the time came for Atlantis and Mir to part company.
The initial separation at 3:55:44 a.m. EST was performed by springs which pushed the shuttle away from the docking mechanism at a rate of 0.2 feet (6 cm) per second, with the maneuvering assets of both spacecraft shut off to avoid inadvertent firings. When their docking mechanisms were clear of each other, Cameron reactivated Atlantis’ thrusters and executed a Low-Z maneuver to begin a slow separation from Mir. At a distance of 400 feet (120 meters), he handed over control of the orbiter to Jim Halsell, who executed a two-circuit flyaround of the space station, during which time the rest of the crew performed a photographic survey, before departing for good.
Two days later, at 12:01:27 p.m. EST on the 20th, Cameron guided Atlantis smoothly onto Runway 33 at KSC, on the first landing opportunity of the day. The second of what eventually became a total of nine shuttle-Mir dockings between June 1995 and June 1998 was also the shortest, at just eight days from launch through landing. Yet it not only opened the door for the remainder of the shuttle-Mir program—“Phase 1” of the three-phase effort which has today produced the fully functional and permanently inhabited ISS—but it actually delivered the door, in the form of the Docking Module. And that door would be opened and passed through by numerous astronauts and cosmonauts, from the United States, Russia and France, many times over the following years.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 25th anniversary of STS-38, a classified Department of Defense shuttle mission in November 1990, which flew on the cusp of the first Gulf War and delivered to orbit a payload whose nature remains shrouded in secrecy to this day.