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For shuttle, it's liftoff at long last

When the skies finally cleared, when the last niggling mechanical problem was cleared up, and when a crashed single-engine aircraft was cleaned up off the beach, NASA began one of its most important missions in many years with a near-perfect launch.

The space shuttle Atlantis flew into space at 3:32 p.m. Tuesday, right on time, "heralding a new day of international cooperation in space," according to NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham.

The highlight of the mission is scheduled for 9:05 a.m. Thursday, when Atlantis is to dock with the Russian space station Mir _ the first such union between the historically competitive nations since Apollo-Soyuz 20 years ago.

A successful mission will enhance arguments that U.S.-Russian cooperation is a worthwhile way to pursue space exploration; anything less jeopardizes plans for a joint effort to build a space station.

Before the mission could begin, however, NASA had to get lucky with the weather _ which had been horrible since the mission was postponed last Saturday.

It finally improved Tuesday. "But we were biting our nails those last few hours," said shuttle program manager Loren Shriver.

A single-engine aircraft frayed nerves further Tuesday morning when it entered restricted air space and crashed on the beach a few miles from the shuttle landing facility. The unidentified pilot was taken to a Titusville area hospital for treatment of cuts, Shriver said, and the countdown continued.

Thursday's docking maneuver will involve about $100-million worth of equipment developed jointly by the two nations.

NASA calls the shuttle's approach to Mir "pretty straightforward" and says Mission Commander Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson has practiced it hundreds of times on simulators.

Nevertheless, the approach requires steady nerves and precise timing.

The launch was timed so that Atlantis could meet Mir in its orbit, thereby burning a minimum of fuel catching up. During the first days of the mission, Atlantis will periodically fire thrusters to bring it nearer to Mir.

As the shuttle closes in, radar will provide precise information about range and speed of approach. As the distance lessens, a laser device will provide even more precise information, and finally, Gibson will have the benefit of bright lights and his own eyes.

Atlantis will approach from beneath Mir, along an imaginary line from the center of Mir to the center of Earth. About a half-mile from the space station, Gibson will take over manual control of the approach. If he must fire rocket thrusters to slow the approach, he will use special jets that have been aimed so that their exhaust will not damage the Russian space station.

Aided by cameras, and lights on both vehicles, Gibson will make increasingly fine adjustments as the two spacecraft slowly close to within a few feet, at a rate of about one-tenth of a foot per second. If necessary, Gibson will rotate the orbiter into the proper alignment for docking.

Finally, the 15-foot-wide docking system, installed near the forward end of the payload bay, will "capture" Mir by hooking to a specially designed fitting aboard the space station. The two vehicles then will be linked by series of air locks, and crews will be able to move back and forth.

The approach will be complicated somewhat by a solar array aboard Mir that has not properly unfolded. It remains bunched up just above where the docking will take place. NASA said the solar array should not be a problem, however, since Atlantis should come no closer than 8 to 10 feet.

While docked with Mir, the shuttle will unload supplies and a new Mir crew, made up of Anatoly Y. Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin. It will return to Earth the data from experiments, some used equipment, and the old Mir crew _ U.S. astronaut Norm Thagard, Gennady Strekalov and Vladamir Dezhurov.

The Atlantis crew going into space numbers seven. On the way back, it will number eight. The additional crew member is Thagard, who has been aboard Mir since March 16.

Thagard set a U.S. record for time spent in space, breaking a 1973 record established by a Skylab crew.

Tuesday's launch was the successful beginning of the 100th manned mission in the history of the U.S. space program.

"This may sound callous," said shuttle program manager Shriver, "but I treat all these launches the same. Each is just as important as the last."

After the fact, he acknowledged, there is time to reflect on the historical importance of a mission. In this case, the crew of the launch control room gathered after liftoff to pose for a group picture with a sign proclaiming the 100th manned mission.

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