AT Cape Canaveral and on Russia's Mir space station, astronauts and cosmonauts are ready for a new space-flight era.
The link up of Mir and the space shuttle Atlantis, now expected early next week, will be more than the 100th shuttle mission. It will do more than mark the 20th anniversary of the first and only previous joining of United States and Russian spacecraft in July 1975. It will begin a program of at least seven shuttle-Mir missions to develop hardware, procedures, and skills needed to build an international space station named "Alpha."
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls this "Phase One" of the station project. The upcoming mission will be a dramatic symbol of this new Russian-American partnership on which the future of manned space flight now depends.
As Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) noted in a report last month, there is wide agreement among expert observers that international cooperation now is "essential" for the US space program. And partnership with Russia is a key element in that cooperation.
OTA also warned that this partnership is fraught with political and technical risks. It depends on a reasonable degree of political and economic stability in Russia and on Russia's ability to provide its contributions on time. It depends, too, on the willingness of Congress and the administration to continue funding the joint programs.
NASA has contingency plans to continue most cooperative projects should Russia fail to hold up its end in any of them. But in manned space flight, Russia's contribution is crucial for the world. All interested countries - including Canada, the 14 members of the European Space Agency, and Japan - have focused their manned-flight programs on the space station.
Unlike other Russian-American projects, Russia's contribution lies on what NASA calls the "critical path" for space station construction. The fact that Russia is to supply the core module around which the station is to be built, beginning in late 1997, reflects this status.
Cosmonauts and astronauts have already shown they can work together and use each other's hardware. Now Atlantis and Mir will begin to explore how the two nations' spacecraft can work together.
Technicians are finishing preparations to launch Atlantis during a seven-minute launch window that opens at 5:08 p.m. today. If it gets off on time, weather permitting, the shuttle will go into a nearly circular orbit about 184 miles from Earth.
Over the next few days, mission commander Robert Gibson and his crew will catch up with Mir, which is in a higher orbit. Then, probably on Monday morning, they will close in on Mir and link the two 100-ton craft into one ungainly satellite orbiting 250 miles from Earth.
The final maneuvers are tricky. Atlantis must creep in at a mere 0.2 feet per second while keeping its docking port in almost true alignment with Mir's port. This will be an early test of the two nations' ability to link their space flight hardware together on orbit into a larger - albeit temporary - structure.
Discovery's visit to Mir in February showed that the bulky shuttle can maneuver delicately with precision close to Mir. However, Russian space controllers remember that the Apollo and Soyuz craft came together with a hard bump in their July 1975 test flight. Shuttle-Mir matings - and subsequent space-station linkups - have to be gentler.
The Atlantis crew includes five astronauts and two cosmonauts - replacement Mir commander Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin. The cosmonauts will relieve the current crew, which includes American Norman Thagard.
Meanwhile at Kennedy, Russian and American technicians are readying new solar panels and a new docking-port module for Mir. Atlantis will ferry them in October. Tommy Holloway, NASA manager for the shuttle-Mir phase of the space-station program notes that "as we move into the space-station era, these equipment exchanges will become commonplace."
The OTA report explains that the Russian partnership already "has begun to return scientific, technological, political, and economic benefits" to the US. NASA estimates these include cutting space station costs by $2 billion. Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania,chairman of the House Science Committee, adds that "working with the tremendous space capabilities of the former Soviet Union ... is worth the reasonable risks involved."