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Shuttle Lifts Off for Hookup With Mir

Space: Atlantis is set to retrieve Shannon Lucid from record-breaking stay in Russian station. Backup power unit failure may end mission early.

September 17, 1996| From Associated Press

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Relief is on the way for NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid.

Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Monday on a mission to bring Lucid home from the Russian space station Mir, where she has spent a record-breaking six months in orbit.

Atlantis, more than six weeks late because of mechanical trouble and two hurricanes, is supposed to dock late Wednesday with Mir, despite the failure of a critical power unit that could force NASA to cut the flight short.

Lucid will immediately trade places with shuttle astronaut John Blaha, her replacement.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration briefly considered moving up the docking to today because of the mysterious shutdown of one of three hydraulic power units minutes after liftoff. But the space agency held to its original schedule because of the extra fuel that would have to be used to arrive early at Mir.

The problem still could lead NASA to shorten the docked phase of the 10-day mission and bring Lucid back to Earth early.

The three hydraulic units are not used in orbit but are vital during the launch and the landing, controlling the wing flaps, rudder and landing gear. The shuttle probably could land safely with just one of the units, but NASA prefers to have two working backups.

Mir was over the Pacific, west of South America, when Atlantis and its crew of six finally took off at 4:54 a.m. EDT. Because of the way Mir was turned, Lucid and her two Russian crewmates were out of radio contact at the time. When communication was restored 20 minutes later, Russia's Mission Control passed along the good news.

Lucid, a 53-year-old biochemist and mother of three grown children, has been living on Mir since March and should have been home in early August. But problems with booster rockets and bad weather delayed her ride.

If Atlantis returns as scheduled on Sept. 26, Lucid will have spent 188 days in space. She already holds the U.S. space endurance record as well as the world record for a woman.

A male Russian cosmonaut, Valery Polyakov, holds the overall space endurance record of 438 days, set last year.

Blaha, 54, a retired Air Force colonel and former combat pilot, is scheduled to spend a comparatively scant four months on Mir.

NASA expects to decide today whether to shorten the amount of time that Atlantis and Mir are supposed to be linked, five days, and push up the landing. The two space crews have to haul 2 tons of food, water and other supplies from Atlantis to Mir and 1 ton of gear in the opposite direction. It would be the biggest-ever space transfer.

"I think that with heroic efforts, we could get most everything transferred in a day, but that would not be a very pleasant way to do business," NASA flight director Paul Dye said before the flight.

After Lucid gets back, it will take weeks, if not months, for her body to readapt to gravity. She said she wants to hit the bookstores, ride her bike with "the wind in your face and the sun on your back" and go skating with her daughters.

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