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'Kontakt!': First U.S. Astronaut Visits Russian Space Station Mir

By Sonni Efron
Los Angeles Times
KALININGRAD, Russia

After a flawless docking, astronaut Norman E. Thagard floated aboard the Space Station Mir yesterday, the first American to visit the nine-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 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," said Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson. 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 Soyuz rocket.

In a meticulously choreographed space ballet, the Soyuz capsule caught up with the 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 about 17,500 mph.

Then, traveling on auto pilot 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 bulls-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.