On July 7,1995, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center, concluding one of the most dramatic, interest-capturing space missions since the Apollo era. Executed with text- book precision, the historic STS-71 flight featured a challenging docking with the Russian space station Mir and five days of cooperative Russian/American experimentation in the linked Atlantis/Mir, the largest structure ever assembled in orbit.
The mission to Mir, the 100th U.S. human space flight, marked a milestone in a multistep preliminary agenda intended to provide a framework for International Space Station assembly operations, which began in 1997.
Phase I of the developmental flight program started in February 1994, when Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev flew aboard the eight-day Shuttle mission STS-60. A year later, on February 3,1995, NASA launched STS-63, Orbiter Discovery to a rendezvous with Mir. Discovery successfully accomplished the rendezvous, then executed a slow "flyaround," circling the station at a distance of about 450 feet for photography and communications tests. The rendezvous and flyaround validated a number of techniques for subsequent employment in docking missions, such as those essential to assembly of the International Space Station.
On March 14,1995, U.S. astronaut/physician Norman E. Thagard, together with cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalev, were launched to Mir to begin a 11 5-day stay in space conducting life sciences and station-related experiments and preparing Mir for its meeting with Atlantis.
The historic Atlantis/Mir docking occurred on June 29, 161 miles above Central Asia near the Russian/Mongolian border. On board Atlantis were commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson; pilot Charles J. Precourt, and mission specialists Bonnie Dubbar, Ellen S. Baker and Gregory J. Harbaugh; they were joined by the two-man replacement crew for Mir, cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolia Budarin.
After two days of gradually narrowing the distance between Atlantis and Mir, Gibson flew the Orbiter to a position 1,000 feet below Mir, then used the Orbiter's computer-directed thrusters to close the gap. Precisely on schedule at 1300 hours Greenwich Mean Time, Gibson maneuvered the Orbiter so that its capture ring latched into an interface ring in Mir's docking module. A final short burst of the Orbiter's thrusters forced the two spacecraft tightly together in "hard capture." The seven-person crew of Atlantis left the Orbiter via an airlock system and floated through a tunnel to the Mir core module, where they joined Thagard, Dezhurov and Strekalevča space "first" with 10 people in orbit at one time.
For the next four days, the international crew conducted a variety of experiments, centering on medical investigations of the effects of long duration space flight on Thagard and his Mir crewmates. On the Fourth of July, the docking interfaces were released and Atlantis separated from Mir, now carrying a somewhat different eight-person crew; while Solovyev and Budarin remained on Mir, Thagard, Dezhurov and Strekalev joined the original Atlantis team for the return to Florida.
The mission was e first of seven planned Shuttle/Mir flights in 1995-97 intended to provide joint flight experience, reduce e risks associated with space station assembly, and allow extensive cooperation research. The demonstration of U.S./Russian teamwork in orbit was, in the words of NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, "a wonderful dream come true," an impressive reinforcement of confidence that the challenging task of assembling the International Space Station will be accomplished with equivalent precision.