Shuttle Atlantis docks with Russian space station Mir Maneuver 'letter-perfect,' astronaut says


HOUSTON -- The shuttle Atlantis, after a three-day orbital chase of the space station Mir, caught and docked with the Russian spacecraft Mir today in a link-up that serves as a prelude to building large structures in orbit.

Atlantis and its crew of five, moving in a lower orbit but at a slightly higher speed than Mir since beginning the journey Sunday, reached the Russian station late last night. Then, in a slow ballet above the Earth, astronauts maneuvered a new docking module to join the two craft on schedule, at about 1:27 a.m., for a planned three-day visit.

The Atlantis-Mir docking, a repeat of the first mating of the two 100-ton spacecraft four months ago, brought together astronauts from four countries to practice large-scale construction in space -- skills needed for the international space station.

The convergence of the spacecraft 245 miles above Earth came after a 9,000-pound, Russian-made docking module was erected in the cargo bay of the Atlantis early yesterday. Maj. Chris A. Hadfield of the Canadian Air Force, working inside the Atlantis, used a 50-foot-long robot arm in the cargo bay to grab and maneuver the orange-colored module until it rested atop a smaller docking tunnel used on the previous flight.

Major Hadfield deftly lifted the 15-foot-long module from the rear of the bay and positioned it vertically above a capture ring extending from the shorter docking structure in the shuttle. While the two units were just 5 inches apart, the shuttle commander, Col. Kenneth D. Cameron of the Marine Corps, fired several jets to raise the Atlantis. This drove the spacecraft upward, slamming the two docking components together.

"It was letter-perfect," Major Hadfield said yesterday.

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