THANKS to a leaking thruster on the space shuttle Discovery last week, American and Russian space-flight teams are better prepared to go forward with their flight program.
Looking back on the historic rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station Feb. 6, shuttle program director Brewster Shaw said the malfunction was ''a special plus.'' It forced the two teams to work harder to meet an unexpected challenge. It taught a lesson in cooperation between former rivals that could be learned in no other way. And that, Mr. Shaw said, ''was the whole purpose of this activity.'' Discovery landed at 6:51 a.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In this case, the malfunction ended up advancing one of the mission objectives, namely to test the handling of a shuttle close to the 100-ton Mir in preparation for actually docking with the station. Russian controllers had been concerned that the leaking thruster might damage Mir. In the end, the two teams arrived at procedures that let Discovery to come within 37 feet of the station. And how did the massive spacecraft handle in that close encounter? ''It was like dancing in the cosmos,'' mission comma nder James Wetherbee reported.
Now both Russian and American planners will be digesting this and other lessons from the Discovery-Mir encounter as they head toward the official beginning of the shuttle-Mir program. It starts in March when United States astronaut Norman Thagard is due to go to the Mir station on a Russian spaceship. Then, in June, he is to come back on the shuttle Atlantis as part of the first Mir crew rotation carried out with an American spacecraft. At least six more shuttle missions to Mir are planned over the next
two years as Americans learn to work with Russians on board the Russian station.
THERE'S more to this program than orbital togetherness. Its main goal is to prepare for building the international space station with Canada, Europe, and Japan starting in 1997. That means extensive developing and testing of hardware, human factors, and operating procedures.
Astronauts Bernard Harris Jr. and Michael Foale tested some of those factors and procedures when they spent 4-1/2 hours in Discovery's open payload bay Thursday. They practiced handling massive objects by pushing around the Spartan astronomy satellite that had spent two days in independent flight. They became test subjects themselves later that day when fellow crew member, Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Titov, maneuvered them out of the sunshine at the end of the shuttle's manipulator arm. In spite of new i nsulated gloves, their hands cooled so much they had to cut their space walk short. This test showed that redesigned gloves will be necessary.