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"Atlantis' linked to Russia's "Mir'

Published Oct. 4, 2005

The icy vacuum of space was replaced with the warmth of a handshake as the American space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir 245 miles above Earth on Thursday.

Together, the ships form the largest-ever man-made satellite put in space, a half-million pounds traveling at 17,500 mph.

Atlantis and Mir will remain docked for five days while the crews conduct scientific experiments and transfer equipment and scientific data.

It was the first meeting of international spacecraft since July 17, 1975, when Apollo and Soyuz crews joined hands and capsules in orbit for two days of work together.

"After 20 years, our spacecraft are docked in orbit again. Our new era of space exploration has begun," shuttle communicator David Wolf said from Mission Control in Houston.

The linkup above central Asia came after a tense orbital chase in which Atlantis slowly approached the space station. Finally, after hours of preparations, the two docking mechanisms touched in a metallic kiss.

A gentle kick from the shuttle's engines at the last instant pushed the docking mechanisms tightly together, as planned.

"We have capture," Capt. Robert "Hoot" Gibson of the Navy, Atlantis' commander, radioed ground controllers after joining the 112-foot-long Mir and 122-foot-long shuttle, making the operation look easy.

Gibson had executed a rendezvous and docking so perfect that he was only two seconds off the targeted arrival time. His spaceship was just four-tenths of a degree out of alignment and used 200 pounds less fuel than anticipated.

"It is unbelievable, Hoot," Wolf reported from Mission Control.

The two spacecraft at one time were major tools in the waging of the Cold War and their linkup Thursday was hailed as symbolizing a new partnership between former adversaries.

The docking was a picture-perfect start to what U.S. and Russian space officials see as decades of cooperative work in space, including the building of an international outpost bigger than a football field and perhaps one day voyaging to other planets.

In theory, such teamwork will advance space exploration more than either side could do alone.

"This is a tremendous success," Wil Trafton, head of the International Space Station project at NASA, told reporters here after the linkup. "It should quiet a lot of the critics and skeptics," some of whom have called the joint venture a waste of money that is prone to failure.

In July 1975, the relatively puny Apollo and Soyuz capsules linked up briefly during a thaw in the Cold War _ a space spectacular involving five astronauts that was of little importance for politics or space development.

Thursday the two spacecraft that merged were more than seven times as massive and could hardly have looked more different. The shuttle, which carried seven astronauts, is sleek; the station, with three astronauts, is gangly. Mir is a cluster of modules, solar-power panels and heat radiators, its core launched nine years ago. Since then it has served as an orbiting factory, an astronomical observatory and observation post to study Earth's environment and to spy with.

The Clinton administration hammered out agreements to merge the hearts of the U.S. and Russian manned space programs, with linkups of Mir and the shuttles to serve as stepping stones to building the big station, which is to involve 15 nations.

Thursday's linkup is the first of seven planned between the shuttles and Mir.

After chasing Mir for two days, the Atlantis astronauts were awakened Thursday by ground controllers at 1:32 a.m., central daylight time, with the song From a Distance, sung by Nanci Griffith. Houston also sent birthday greetings to the shuttle's pilot, Lt. Col. Charles J. Precourt of the Air Force, who turned 40 Thursday.

Shortly before 3 a.m., the shuttle's main maneuvering engines fired for 45 seconds, nudging the 100-ton shuttle to a position some 9 miles behind and below Mir. At 4:30 a.m., a final firing sent the winged spaceship on a dead aim for the Russian outpost.

"We can see Mir's running lights," Gibson told Houston at 5:08 a.m.

Just after 6 a.m., Atlantis reached a holding position 270 feet below the big Russian outpost, which hung large and bright in the sunlight, its solar panels spread through space like wings.

The Mir astronauts then began broadcasting Russian folk songs to Atlantis.

Gazing out a Mir window, Dr. Norman Thagard, a U.S. physician-astronaut aboard the Russian station, radioed that seeing Atlantis up close was "quite an inspiring sight."

Thagard flew up to Mir in a Russian rocket in March, the first American to do so. Thursday was Thagard's 107th day in space, far beyond the previous American endurance record of 84 days.

"Houston, we've started our approach," Gibson radioed at 7:23 a.m. as small steering jets fired. The shuttle began its final journey moving at about 5 inches a second, slowing as it neared Mir to about 1 inch per second, a pace meant to bar an inadvertent collision.

Ground controllers a half world apart in Houston and Kaliningrad, Russia, outside Moscow, then gave the final go-ahead for docking.

As 10 orbiting astronauts anxiously watched their respective spacecraft through windows and television cameras, the two vehicles touched ever so gingerly at 8 a.m., right on schedule.