BOSTON — WITH handshakes, hugs, and an exchange of gifts, a Russian-American cosmonaut-astronaut team has opened a new spaceflight era.
When the 100-ton United States shuttle Atlantis docked with the 123-ton Russian space station Mir yesterday morning, the two craft became one, and Russian-speaking astronauts and English-speaking cosmonauts began working as a unit.
This is the first time in spaceflight history that two such massive craft have joined to form a larger orbiting structure. And it inaugurates a new phase of the evolving Russian-American joint space-flight program.
But the linkup is more than a display of precision space flying. It illustrates the attention the two nations must pay to a myriad of details as they meld their manned spaceflight programs. The challenge, space officials explain, lies in harmonizing spaceflight capabilities that have developed with different languages, operating styles, and hardware.
They hope to work through that challenge during the seven shuttle/Mir missions planned for the next two years.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Daniel Goldin had this in mind when he said that this flight - the first of those missions - opens "a new era of friendship and cooperation" that will "lay the foundation for construction of an international space station."
Atlantis pilot Charles Precourt has likened their linkup to two people bringing two fingertips together very slowly. The fingers have to be perfectly in line when they touch.
The union occurred at 9 a.m., Eastern time, 245 miles above a predetermined spot near the Russian-Mongolian border in Central Asia. The crews were shaking hands by 11. The margins for the linkup's success were tiny: two minutes on the clock and three inches on the ruler.
But Atlantis commander Robert Gibson and his crew have been maneuvering to make that kind of precision linkup since they left the launch pad at 3:32 p.m., Eastern time, Tuesday. Mir commander Vladimir Dezhurov and his crew - including American astronaut Norman Thagard - have been preparing to receive visitors. Their preparations paid off when Atlantis successfully docked to Mir.
These current operations reflect several years of negotiations, joint engineering work, training at each other's facilities, and general getting to know each other by both countries.
Americans, for example, were concerned about the reliability of the Russian docking mechanism on board Atlantis. Joint engineering work and testing have satisfied that concern. Russians wondered about the safety of bringing the 100-ton shuttle in contact with the 123-ton Mir. Too hard a bump, misdirected thruster firing, or a brush with a solar panel could damage Mir.
Both sides also wondered how they would handle an emergency in close-quarters maneuvering when two control centers speaking different languages are involved. Controllers had their first test last February when leaking thrusters on the shuttle Discovery threatened to curtail its close-in rendezvous with Mir. Valuable lessons were learned and mutual confidence established in successfully overcoming that threat.
Now both sides will be relying on each other more and more. Atlantis is carrying the Mir replacement crew - new Mir commander Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin. It will bring back Lt. Col. Dezhurov, Gennady Strekalov, and Dr. Thagard.
There will be more such crew exchanges in the future as well as deliveries of key experiments and hardware. In October, for example, Atlantis is to bring up a new permanent docking port for Mir and additional solar panels. Each Atlantis mission will also bring water. In short supply on Mir, water is a waste product of shuttle fuel cell electric generators.
Next March, the shuttle-Mir program plans to set another landmark when astronauts Linda Godwin and Rich Clifford are to carry out the first US spacewalk outside Mir. They are to attach four experiments to Mir's docking module. This Atlantis visit also will bring astronaut Shannon Lucid to Mir for three months.
With the docking ceremonies over, the Atlantis and Mir crews have begun five days of scientific experiments, including crew physiological tests. They will be conducted both on Mir and in the Spacelab in Atlantis's cargo bay.
Thagard, who has been on orbit since March 14, has said he and his cosmonauts colleagues have been awaiting Atlantis's arrival eagerly because it's "our ride home." That involves one more new space flight detail - NASA will have visas ready when the two cosmonauts land July 7.
Both sides felt the importance of the event. Capt. Gibson said, "It's a great feeling to be here. We're lucky and we're honored and privileged to be part of this."
Yuri Semenov, head of a Russian aerospace firm said, "The two countries have a lot to learn from each other. Together, we can do much more than individually, and we hope that politicians will not interfere with our work and will actually assist us rather than be in our way," the Associated Press reported.