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U.S. Astronaut Floats Into Russian Station : Space: American gets bear hug and kiss from cosmonaut aboard. Mission control erupts in cheers.

March 17, 1995|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KALININGRAD, Russia — After a flawless docking, astronaut Norman E. Thagard floated aboard the space station Mir on Thursday, becoming the first American to visit the 9-year-old Russian facility.

As Thagard steered his weightless body through the hatch into the Mir, cosmonaut Yelena V. Kondakova wrapped her arms around him in a big Russian bear hug and kissed him on the cheek.

Cheers and laughter broke out in the Russian mission control center in this Moscow suburb, where American and Russian dignitaries celebrated the resumption, after a 20-year hiatus, of joint space exploration by the Earth's two major space-faring powers.

"I'm almost speechless at the historical significance of this, when you consider how many years we bumped our heads together," Robert L. (Hoot) Gibson said. A Lakeville, Calif., native, Gibson will command the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis mission that will fly to the Mir in June to bring Thagard and his two Russian crew mates home.

Thagard, 51, who has been on five space journeys, flight commander Vladimir N. Dezhurov, 32, and engineer Gennady M. Strekalov, 54, blasted off Tuesday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the arid steppe of Kazakhstan atop a relatively primitive but well-proven Soyuz rocket.

In a meticulously choreographed space ballet, the Soyuz capsule caught up with Mir about 250 miles above the Baikonur launch pad but stopped a little less than 500 feet from the space station. The two spacecraft flew in tandem at an orbit speed of 7.8 kilometers per second (about 17,500 miles per hour).

Then, traveling on autopilot at the seemingly impossibly slow rate of less than an inch per second, the Soyuz glided toward the Mir.

"It's amazing how accurate you have to be to dock," said cosmonaut Valery N. Kubasov, a veteran of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission, when American and Russian astronauts met for the first time in space.

"This is just a fairy tale," Kubasov said as a giant television screen showed the Soyuz slide gracefully onto the bull's-eye of the docking pad.

"Kontakt!" announced Russian mission control as the spacecraft mated.

Ninety-two minutes and one orbit of the Earth later, after the pressure between the two capsules had equalized, Thagard popped the hatch. In keeping with Russian traditions of hospitality, the American guest was ushered into the space station first, followed by the Russian flight commander.

Thagard is the 13th foreigner to visit Mir, but the first American. He will quickly be followed by many more Yankees under a historic four-year space cooperation agreement that allows U.S. astronauts to spend up to 21 months working on the Russian space station.

"I'm very glad to be on board here," Thagard said in Russian, as his wife and three sons watched with what looked like equal measures of pride and relief.

*

The Russian custom of offering bread and salt to visitors has had to be altered on account of micro-gravity to prevent scratchy bread crumbs and corrosive grains of salt from dancing around the space station. Thagard and his comrades were handed bread in a special space bag and salt wrapped in plastic. Then all the cosmonauts jammed together to take a group portrait, while trying to keep various cables and other passing objects from drifting in front of the camera lens.

Kondakova and Alexander S. Viktorenko have spent about five months on Mir, but their colleague, Valery V. Polyakov, who holds the world record for time in space, arrived on Jan. 8, 1994. The U.S. record, set by Skylab in 1974, is only 84 days, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists hope to benefit from Russia's experience with longer space flight.

There will not be much elbow room on Mir until the current crew departs next week. The space station was cramped even before the arrival of the three new cosmonauts.

Since the Buran, the Soviet Union's answer to the space shuttle, was canceled after one flight, Russia has the means to put cargo up but can bring very little back to Earth. Nine years' worth of accumulated equipment is crammed into the Mir.

Mir's electrical, life-support and climate-control systems will be taxed serving six people. One of the astronauts' tasks will be to install four solar panels due to arrive on the Russian cargo capsule Spektr in May, doubling the space station's power capacity. The Spektr will also bring American science hardware, which physician Thagard and his successors will use to perform medical experiments.

A new refrigerator on board the Mir and the opportunity for a climate-controlled, smooth ride aboard the Atlantis shuttle back to Earth will make it possible to store astronauts' blood samples and later analyze the body's biochemical changes during long space flights.

That research will be essential once the International Space Station is ready for permanent habitation in 2002.

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