Our space program has gone through many changes over the years. There have been accidents, losses, victories, and amazing strides in both exploration and the vehicles we use to take these trips. One of the biggest goals was to have a space station so that men and women could live and work in space indefinitely…or at least for long periods of time. On June 29, 1995, the American space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir. This docking formed the largest man-made satellite ever to orbit the Earth…at that time, anyway. We all know that records are meant to be broken.
For a number of years, Russia and the United States had been rivals when it came to the Space Race…as well as many other things, so this joint venture was a really big deal. It was not only about the two rivals working in cooperation together, but it was also the 100th human space mission in American history. It was such a big deal, in fact, that Daniel Goldin, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), called it the beginning of “a new era of friendship and cooperation” between the United States and Russia. The docking was also a big deal to people everywhere, with millions of viewers watching on television, Atlantis blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in eastern Florida on June 27, 1995.
Just after 6am on June 29, the very excited seven-member crew prepared Atlantis for docking with Mir, as both crafts orbited the Earth some 245 miles above Central Asia, near the Russian-Mongolian border. The moment they spotted the shuttle, the three cosmonauts on Mir began to broadcast Russian folk songs to Atlantis to welcome them. The party was about to begin. Over the next two hours, the shuttle’s commander, Robert “Hoot” Gibson expertly maneuvered his craft towards the space station. This was no easy task. In order to make the docking, Gibson had to steer the 100-ton shuttle to within three inches of Mir at a closing rate of no more than one foot every 10 seconds. Now, I don’t know how fast that would be in miles per hour measurement, but I think these crafts could certainly be damaged by the impact. Precision was key.
Well, the docking went perfectly that day, and by 8am it was completed, and just two seconds off the targeted arrival time, while using 200 pounds less fuel than had been anticipated. Now, that’s what I call success. When docked, Atlantis and the 123-ton Mir formed the largest spacecraft ever in orbit at that time. It was only the second time ships from two countries had linked up in space; the first was in June 1975, when an American Apollo capsule and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft briefly joined in orbit.
Once the docking was completed, Gibson and Mir’s commander, Vladimir Dezhurov, greeted each other by clasping hands in a victorious celebration of the historic moment. A formal exchange of gifts followed, with the Atlantis crew bringing chocolate, fruit, and flowers and the Mir cosmonauts offering traditional Russian welcoming gifts of bread and salt. After the party, Atlantis remained docked with Mir for five days before returning to Earth. They left two fresh Russian cosmonauts behind on the space station and took the three veteran Mir crew members home in the shuttle. The returning crew members included two Russians and Norman Thagard, a US astronaut who rode a Russian rocket to the space station in mid-March 1995 and spent over 100 days in space. This was a United States endurance record…at that time, anyway. This was a great alliance, especially between two former rivals. NASA’s Shuttle-Mir program continued for 11 missions and was a crucial step towards the construction of the International Space Station, which is now in orbit, and is the current largest space craft.
We all know about the International Space Station these days, but any previous space stations were not really very well known…at least I didn’t know much about them. The United States and Russia have been in competition for years, and over far more than the space program, but it was one area that they carried on a heated competition over. It seems like one or the other was always a little bit ahead, but there were a few places that Russia definitely beat the United States. One such area was the Space Station.
On April 19, 1971, the Soviet Union (Russia) launched Salyut 1 (English translation: Salute 1). It was the first space station of any kind. More stations followed in the Salyut program, and there are parts of that space station program that are still in use on the International Space Station today. Salyut 1 originated as a modification of the military Almaz space station program that the Soviets were developing at that time. After the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon in July 1969, the Soviets began shifting the primary emphasis of their manned space program to orbiting space stations, with a possible lunar landing later in the 1970s if the N-1 booster became flight-worthy (which it didn’t). I suppose that since the moon landing had already happened, they decided to focus their efforts on something they could be first at. It was the perfect motivation for the space station program…a desire to one-up the United States Skylab program, which was already in development. The basic structure of Salyut 1 was adapted from the Almaz with a few modifications and would form the basis of all Soviet space stations through Mir.
Several military experiments were nonetheless carried on Salyut 1, including the OD-4 optical visual ranger, the Orion ultraviolet instrument for characterizing rocket exhaust plumes, and the highly classified Svinets radiometer. Construction of Salyut 1 began in early 1970 and after nearly a year, it was shipped to the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Some remaining assembly work had yet to be done and this was completed at the launch center. Launch was planned for April 12, 1971 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight on Vostok 1, but technical problems delayed it until the 19th. The first crew launched later in the Soyuz 10 mission, but they ran into troubles while docking and were unable to enter the station; the Soyuz 10 mission was aborted and the crew returned safely to Earth. Its second crew launched in Soyuz 11 and remained on board for 23 days. This was the first time in the history of spaceflight that a space station had been manned, and a new record in time spent in space. This success was, however, overshadowed when the crew was killed during re-entry, as a pressure-equalization valve in the Soyuz 11 re-entry capsule had opened prematurely, causing the crew to asphyxiate. After this accident, missions were suspended while the Soyuz spacecraft was redesigned. The station was intentionally destroyed by de-orbiting it after six months in orbit, because it ran out of fuel before a redesigned Soyuz spacecraft could be launched to it. Space stations have come a long way since that first station, but the Salyut 1 will always have the place of honor as the very first one.