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This mission possible for "Hoot'

He's flown combat missions in Southeast Asia, tested experimental aircraft, raced stunt planes and piloted space shuttles five times, more than anyone else.

But the real challenge comes today, when Robert "Hoot" Gibson docks the 100-ton Atlantis with Russia's sprawling space station Mir.

Gibson considers it the ultimate flying experience. Truth be told, though, he didn't want it. At the time, he was chief astronaut, with responsibility for helping select crews for shuttle flights.

"I was very happy being chief of the astronaut office," he said in an interview before the flight. "I fought it for a while and finally gave in."

Now, of course, he wouldn't trade this for anything.

Such large objects have never docked before in orbit, and it will be up to Gibson to make sure everything goes well.

Atlantis closed in on Mir on Wednesday as NASA astronaut Norman Thagard and his two Russian comrades did some last-minute tidying up aboard the cluttered station. Two Russian cosmonauts aboard Atlantis will replace the three men on Mir, who will come home when the shuttle lands July 7 at Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttle landing will indeed be a homecoming for Thagard, whose hometown is Jacksonville. He graduated from Florida State University and still has family in the state, including his mother in Dunnellon in Marion County and mother-in-law in Tallahassee. His wife, Rex, comes from Ponte Vedra Beach.

Before Atlantis blasted off Tuesday, pilot Gibson and his U.S.-Russian crew of seven had logged 500 hours in shuttle simulators at Johnson Space Center.

The docking is considered one of the most complicated space tasks ever.

Gibson, 48, a Navy captain, spent the past year practicing for today's rendezvous and docking, the first linkup of U.S. and Russian spacecraft since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

"It's not an easy thing to do, but it's very repeatable," Gibson said. "It's kind of along the lines of some of the stuff I used to do, air-to-air refueling and any of those precision tasks.

"When I look at the things that I've been able to do in my flying career so far, this is going to be the biggest," he said.

Unlike many astronauts, Gibson didn't grow up wanting to fly in space. He wanted to fly, period. His parents were pilots.

"I watched all the space missions eagerly . . . but I wasn't interested in doing that myself because those weren't airplanes," said Gibson.

In the early 1970s, he flew combat missions during the Vietnam War.

NASA chose Gibson as an astronaut in 1978. Also in that first shuttle astronaut class was Dr. M. Rhea Seddon, whom Gibson married. They have two sons, 12 and 6, and a daughter, born June 9. Seddon has flown three shuttle missions.

Gibson wasn't always at the top of his class.

NASA grounded him in 1990 after his stunt plane collided with another craft at a Texas air show and the other pilot was killed. NASA bars flight-crew members from high-risk pursuits in their free time. Gibson humbly accepted the punishment and was back in orbit two years later.

Shuttle update

Using a Touch-Tone phone, call the TimesLine number for your area listed on Page 2A for the latest on Atlantis; punch in category code 1050.

Live from Mission Control

When the space shuttle Atlantis and the Russian Mir space station dock _ scheduled for 9 this morning _ listen to up-to-date reports from Mission Control. Call TimesLine; punch in category code 6272 (or NASA).

Computer users with access to the Internet World Wide Web can call up a NASA home page monitoring the Atlantis-Mir mission. The Web address http: / / provides real-time flight telemetry and other information from the mission.

See the shuttle

With luck, you should be able to look up and see Atlantis/Mir for a few minutes on July 2, 4 and 6. We will provide details closer to the date.

Rendevous in space

On a historic mission, U.S. shuttle Atlantis will dock with Russian space station Mir, deliver a new crew and return with the crew stationed there since March 14.

The docking process

1 The shuttle will close in on Mir, braking by firing propulsion thrusters. The shuttle commander will line up the two parts of the docking apparatus - one on Mir and one on the shuttle - by training a camera on a target on Mir's docking base. The capture ring on the shuttle, extending 11 inches from the docking base, makes contact with a similar ring on Mir.

2 The three capture latches on the shuttle then grapple body mounts on the Mir. This creates a "soft docking," which arrests the relative motion of both vehicles.

3 The shuttle's capture ring now extends another 3 inches to fully align with Mir. The joined section then retracts 14 inches into the shuttle's docking assembly and is secured with 12 structural latches. The entire docking process takes about 1.5 hours. At the mission's end, the latches are unhooked and springs push the vehicles apart.

Source: NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center