Astronauts, Cosmonauts Get Down to Business
Russians and Americans cooperate on biological experiments
FOR astronauts and cosmonauts on the Atlantis-Mir satellite, the time for talking about their new partnership is past. Over the weekend, they have gotten down to the nitty-gritty work of making the most of their five days together - even as they swapped complaints about a diet of dehydrated borscht and many showerless days in space.
The work includes carrying out physiological tests on returning Mir crew members. It also involves transferring experiments, equipment, and supplies from Atlantis to Mir and transferring other equipment and experiments from Mir to Atlantis for return to Earth.
Atlantis pilot Charles Precourt summed up the orbital team's feelings about what it is doing when he said "We don't see borders ... we see one Earth where we all come from." Mir's new commander Anatoly Solovyev explained that, seen in this perspective, their work together is being done "to obtain significant results in orbit so humankind on Earth can live better and receive the interesting and great scientific results that are forthcoming."
The shuttle-Mir partnership adds significant capability to the manned space-flight programs of both nations. A shuttle can carry more supplies to Mir than can Russia's unmanned Progress space freighters. And the shuttle allows Mir crews to send more experiments and other payload back to Earth than can be crammed into the far smaller Russian Soyuz return ship.
Atlantis will bring back hundreds of physiological samples astronaut Norman Thagard took during his stint on Mir.
The shuttle adds research capabilities - both equipment and temporary extra personnel - that the space station lacks. This is especially important for studying the physiological effects of weightlessness. American astronauts Ellen Baker and Bonnie Dunbar have been testing fellow astronaut Dr. Thagard and cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennady Strekalov - the returning Mir crew that has spent 111 days on orbit.
Thagard says that after nearly four months of Russian space food he is looking forward to American staples upon his return. "Hot dogs and hamburgers and ice cream - those will be great," he said yesterday.
Meanwhile, the astronauts are able to make extensive tests in the shuttle's Spacelab laboratory. And they are getting data and samples before the rapid changes that occur upon return to Earth affect the Mir crew members.
Conversely, Mir provides long-duration space flight capability impossible with the shuttle. It allows American astronauts to gain experience with extended weightlessness. Equally important scientifically, it provides opportunities for American scientists to conduct a variety of biological and physical experiments under extended weightless conditions.
For example, one of the main experiments Atlantis has delivered to Mir involves several hundred protein samples. Scientists are trying to grow nearly perfect protein crystals - an impossible task on Earth. The research team - led by Alexander McPherson of the University of California at Riverside - will have months of crystal-growing time instead of the few days of a typical shuttle mission.
So far, the control centers at Houston and Kaliningrad, Russia, report that Atlantis and Mir are functioning well. Reacting as a single 223-ton object, the joined spacecraft responded satisfactorily to a maneuvering test Saturday.
Flight controllers ordered the new two-man Mir crew and the eight-person returning Atlantis crew into their respective spacecraft. The crews then closed their hatches for three hours while Atlantis fired its large, maneuvering thrusters. Engineers wanted to see if leaks would develop in the docking tunnel that links the two craft. They also wanted to see how the craft themselves reacted. There were no leaks. The combined spacecraft remained steady.
Even Mir's extended solar panels barely fluttered, according the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as reported by the Associated Press.
Summing up his Mir experience - the longest orbital stay of any American astronaut - Thagard said, "It's tough to be away from home." Yet he also admitted that "I'd like to do this for just a little while longer."