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American Receives Permission To Board Russian Mir Station

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post

The space shuttle Atlantis received a dramatic, last-minute approval Thursday to blast off on a mission to ferry a new American astronaut to the damaged Russian space station Mir.

Invoking America's history of pioneering, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin ended days of suspense with his decision to allow astronaut David Wolf to fly to Mir for a four-month stay, despite growing concern about the safety of the aging orbital outpost.

Russian and American spaceflight experts also revealed the first authoritative details on the causes of a June 25 collision between Mir and an unmanned cargo vessel, the most serious in a series of mishaps that have contributed to intense and emotional public scrutiny of continued U.S. cooperation with the Russians in space.

Goldin spoke to reporters little more than 12 hours before the scheduled 10:34 p.m. EDT liftoff of Atlantis, creating a degree of uncertainty about a flight crew and mission that is unprecedented in the shuttle's 84-flight history. He said he had agonized over his decision until the last moment - Wednesday night alone in his Washington headquarters office - because he wanted to "do it right" and because he and others involved were shuttling at odd hours between Russia and the United States.

Goldin said the decision "should not be based on emotion or politics. It should not be based on fear." Rather, he said, he based his decision on extensive multilayered safety reviews conducted by four internal and external expert panels, all of which certified Mir's safety and the integrity of NASA's safety review process.

"It's the right thing to do," Goldin said. "Americans press forward. We overcome the unexpected. We discover the unknown."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., the chairman of the House Science Committee who opposes sending more Americans to Mir, said he hoped the safety evaluations are "not a NASA whitewash of the many significant safety risks aboard Mir."

"We have learned from the Challenger accident that ignoring safety warnings can lead to tragedy and a setback of space exploration for years," the congressman said.

Atlantis is loaded with fresh water, repair equipment and other supplies to be transferred to the 12-year-old Russian complex. The international crew's unusually varied list of assignments during the 11-day flight includes docking with Mir, exchanging crew members, conducting a U.S.-Russian spacewalk, and executing a complex shuttle fly-around to inspect and photograph the damage done to Mir in the June collision.

The mission is the latest in a series of shuttle trips to Mir designed to help the United States and Russia prepare for the construction of a new international space station beginning next year.