BOSTON — USSIA'S space station Mir is about to get a mail call and a new mud room, courtesy of the US space shuttle Atlantis.
The shuttle's cargo is a docking module - a 15-foot-long tube that will become Mir's new entryway for this and future shuttle flights.
Although unpretentious, the passageway represents a milestone in space. It is one more step for humans learning how to build an extraterrestrial outpost and part of the preparation for the international space station to be built by the United States, Russia, Canada, the European Space Agency, and Japan. The station core is expected to be placed in orbit in 1997 and should be completed in 2002.
Scheduled for launch at 7:56 a.m. tomorrow, Atlantis is embarking on the second of seven encounters with Mir in the first phase of the international space station. Phase 1 calls for lab experiments on the shuttle and Mir, as well as joint spacewalks and add-ons for Mir. The aim is to practice building structures in orbit.
''The whole purpose of this mission is to install this module as a permanent docking station aboard Mir,'' says Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut and one of five crewmembers making shuttle flight. ''This is the first time the shuttle has been used for space-station construction.''
In addition to the module, the shuttle will deliver two new solar arrays, food, clothing, and research supplies to Mir. It will return to the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., with biological samples from the Mir crew, which will help researchers gauge the effects of long periods of weightlessness on humans, as well as samples from crystal-growth experiments on Mir.
Atlantis's orbital minuet with Mir will begin with launch, which must occur within a seven-minute window. Once in orbit, the first palm-perspiring maneuver comes on the third day. Major Hadfield will use the shuttle's mechanical arm to position the Mir docking module (basically a high-tech tunnel) so that it can be mated with the shuttle's docking system (which is attached to a hatch in the cargo bay). Hadfield must align the module and bring it to within 5 inches of the shuttle's docking system. Once the module is in position, mission commander Ken Cameron will use a short burst from the shuttle's steering jets to close the gap and lock the Mir module to the shuttle.
IF the module fails to latch, mission controllers are prepared to send two astronauts on a space walk to make sure the module is secure. ''This is a new operation with a new mechanism. We're being extra careful,'' says Bill Reeves, the lead flight controller for the mission.
Docking with Mir is scheduled to take place on the mission's fourth day. Once the module has been checked out, the hatches open, control of the module's systems is handed over to Mir, and the crews get to work resupplying Mir and conducting a number of experiments.
Yet even as the launch countdown began, officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began the countdown to turning day-to-day shuttle operations over to a single prime contractor. In the face of pressure from the White House and Congress to cut costs, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin has championed the notion as a way of streamlining NASA and returning it to its roots as an R&D-oriented agency.
According to NASA official Wayne Littles, the agency selected United Space Alliance, a joint venture between Rockwell International Corporation and Lockheed Martin Corporation. Unless Congress objects to the selection, NASA and USA will begin contract negotiations.
During the last three years, the shuttle workforce has dropped by more than 6,000 workers. The consolidation is expected to cost another 7,500 jobs.
When asked about the potential impact on safety, Mr. Littles replies: ''There is no direct relationship between numbers of people and safety.... The communications channels, problem-tracking, and review procedures we adopted after the Challenger won't change. But the shuttle is an operational system. We're looking at [eliminating] things we don't have to do anymore.''