Space race ends with a link-up at 17,500mph

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The Independent Online
After four decades, the space race officially ended at 2pm British Summer Time yesterday as the US space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir 400 kilometres above central Asia.

The docking - the first for 20 years - means that now joined together, the two craft form the largest man-made object to orbit the Earth. Weighing a total of 223 tonnes, the Atlantis and Mir will circle the planet 77 times in the next five days, while their crews perform scientific and medical experiments, and swap personnel. For the first time, the shuttle will live up to its name, by leaving some of its complement on Mir while returning others to Earth.

The link-up is testimony to the durability of Soviet space engineering and to the vulnerability of the American shuttle programme to the weather. Mir has been in orbit for a decade and, despite showing signs of wear and tear, is the longest-lasting habitable spacecraft yet built. The entire mission, however, is several days behind schedule because bad weather in Florida delayed Atlantis's take-off.

Yesterday was the first of seven planned dockings intended to test a technique for building an international space station, due to start in 1997. It ends a competition between the United States and the former USSR for primacy in space which began with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. It was only in July 1975 that co-operation began, when a three-man Apollo capsule linked to a two-man Soyuz, signalled by a highly ballyhooed bearhug in space.

Commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson, piloting the shuttle, said of the docking: "It's not an easy thing to do, but ... it's the kind of thing you can train to do. It's kind of along the lines of some of the stuff I used to do, air-to-air refuelling and any of those precision tasks." In bringing the Atlantis to dock with the Mir, he had to hold its closing speed below 1 cm per second while the two craft sped through space at 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,500 mph).

After two hours' wait to check for leaks, Commander Gibson opened the shuttle hatch to float into Mir, where he shook hands with the Russian commander, Vladimir Dezhurov. The Atlantis's crew of seven included a fresh pair of cosmonauts for the Russian Mir, whose three crewmen looked forward to returning to Earth next week aboard the shuttle.

Symbolic reunion, page 14