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Shuttle Meets Mir in First U.S., Russian Encounter since 1976

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post
HOUSTON

"We are one, we are human!" Alexander Viktorenko, Russian commander of the 103-ton space station Mir, told the crew next door aboard the 87-ton U.S. spaceship Discovery Monday as its crew parked 37 feet away.

The close encounter 213 nautical miles over the Pacific Ocean climaxed a day of high emotions for the U.S. and Russian space teams, in orbit and on the ground, as they resolved hardware problems, reached an eleventh-hour agreement on the choreography of their first rendezvous since 1976, and finally gave in to expressions of awe, relief and elation.

The flow of spectacular television images and audio relayed from the orbiting craft as they performed their tango at 17,500 mph showed the spacecraft inside and out and portrayed the crews waving to each other, signaling with flashlights through small windows, taking each others' pictures, laughing and exchanging quips and compliments in two languages.

Just after 2:20 p.m. Eastern time, as he eased Discovery gently to the point of closest approach in front of Mir, Discovery commander James D. Wetherbee held his ship in place and radioed Mir a formal statement.

First in English, then in bold, though slightly butchered, Russian, the former Navy test pilot and veteran of 345 carrier landings said, "Mir, Discovery. As we are bringing our spaceships closer together, we are bringing our nations closer together. The next time we approach, we will shake your hand and together we will lead our world into the next millennium."

Precision flying in orbit is not new, but this was the first time it had been done with such massive vehicles. American shuttle crews have snagged orbiting scientific equipment and ailing satellites in space on many occasions, and crews of Russian cosmonauts routinely fly up to the Mir in small spacecraft.

Wetherbee and his crew completed the long-awaited close approach, photo inspection and precision flight demonstration, including a slow tour around the space station, within the allotted three hours without a hitch.

Shortly afterward, President Clinton called the Discovery crew to offer congratulations. Officials said the mission had provided valuable engineering and flight data that would lay a firm foundation for a series of shuttle-Mir docking missions beginning in June. "We got nothing but good news today," said Atlantis commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson, who is to fly the first docking mission.

The good news came at the end of a three-day exercise in joint decision-making by the two space agencies over the issue of leaky jets aboard the shuttle. Overnight, American flight managers and engineers marshaled their best analysis and data in a flurry of effort to persuade their Russian counterparts that Discovery could safely fly close to their space station without the risk that a leak in an aft jet would contaminate Mir's critical surfaces.

It was not until 10:25 a.m. Monday that astronaut Story Musgrave, sitting at a console in mission control as crew communicator, relayed the news to a delighted Wetherbee: "You are go to approach to 10 meters," about 33 feet.

Russian flight manager Viktor Blagov agreed to allow the close approach as long as Discovery kept the fuel line to the leak closed. If there was an emergency requiring the use of other steering jets on the same fuel line, Discovery was to back away to a safe distance immediately.

About 7:15 a.m., when Discovery had maneuvered to within 190 miles from Mir, mission control reported that cosmonaut Vladimir Titov, flying as a mission specialist aboard the U.S. ship, had sighted Mir, his former home away from home, through binoculars. He had spent about 366 days on Mir in 1987-88.

Looking back at them from Mir were Viktorenko, 47; Elena Kondakova, 37, the third female Russian cosmonaut and wife of former cosmonaut Valery Ryumin, now a top official of the manned space organization Energia, which built Mir; and medical doctor Valery Polyakov, who is in the 394th day of his current stay in orbit and his 635th cumulative day in space - a world record. All three are scheduled to return to Earth on March 22. Replacing them will be a crew that is to include U.S. astronaut Norman Thagard, the first American ever to be launched aboard a Russian spacecraft.