ORBITING Earth on Russia's Mir space station, German astronaut Thomas Reiter is preparing for a historic rendezvous. He expects to greet American colleagues when the shuttle Atlantis docks with Mir four or five weeks from now.
For the first time, representatives of four of the partners in the international space station program will be working together in space. American and European astronauts have carried out joint shuttle missions before. This time, however, the European will be waiting in space to help welcome the Americans - who include a Canadian astronaut - to a spacecraft on which he, himself, is a guest.
This upcoming three-day work party illustrates the fact that the underlying theme for manned space flight now is preparation for the international space station.
At this writing, for example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was counting down for Thursday's launch of the shuttle Columbia. Its 16-day mission is the second flight of the United States Microgravity Laboratory. The biological, materials, and other experiments to be carried out in the weightless environment of the laboratory in Columbia's cargo bay are national projects. Yet many of them have been designed with the expectation that they will be carried forward on the international station.
This was equally true of Endeavour's recent mission, which ended Sept. 12. Its prime objective was to test the Wake Shield free-flying laboratory, which grew thin crystals of very pure semiconductor material. Experimenters consider that test successful even though they didn't get as much material as planned because of equipment failures. As project director Alex Ignatiev put it, "There were some bumps in the road. We overcame almost all of those bumps." If the Wake Shield system proves practical, it will be used with the space station. Also, Endeavour's flight successfully tested new space-suit heaters and 17 different tools needed for space-station construction.
Meanwhile, astronaut Charles Precourt will soon leave for Star City near Moscow to relieve Michael Baker as NASA's director of operations there. Lt. Colonel Precourt, who piloted Atlantis when it docked with Mir in June, will be the primary link between NASA and the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. He is the fifth astronaut in this crucial post. NASA's announcement explains that this rotational assignment is building "operational and personal relationships" that are "pivotal to successful long-term joint operations" with the Russian Space Agency. This also means building and operating the space station.#
That time is coming fast. "The Russians, like ourselves, are building hardware," says Randy Brinkley, NASA space-station program manager. He adds that "just as we're on schedule and have completed over 48,000 pounds of flight-quality hardware on the US side, the Russians also are on schedule for a November 1997 launch" of the first station unit.
LAST month, NASA's prime space-station contractor, Boeing Defense and Space Group, and Russia's State Research and Production Space Center signed the final agreement for that component. This is the Rus-sian-supplied Functional Energy Block. The shuttle is to deliver the first US-built unit, called Node 1. It will provide the Russian unit with docking ports and utility hookups for the laboratories and living modules that Europe, Japan, and Russia will provide.
Meanwhile, Dr. Reiter and his Russian hosts Sergei Avdeev and Yuri Gidzenko are carrying out microgravity experiments that the European Space Agency (ESA) says will help it "prepare for future missions in the framework of the International Space Station." That includes studying how weightlessness affects the human body.
Reiter's planned 135 days in space, which began Sept. 3, is the longest any European astronaut has been on orbit. It includes a planned five-hour space walk that will give ESA experience in that activity. When Atlantis arrives in late October or early November, ESA will gain experience in carrying out a joint exercise with the two space station partners who run ground control operations.
Meanwhile, Reiter probably will keep close tabs on news from home next month. The 14-nation ESA has not yet agreed on what it will contribute to the international space station. That is supposed to be decided when member-nation ministers gather for the ESA Council meeting Oct. 18-20. Until this issue is settled, neither Reiter nor ESA's space station partners - Canada, Japan, Russia, and the US - will know what kind of European participation they can count on.