The successful manoeuvre followed two failed attempts late last month, when the Progress M-24 supply craft approached Mir under automatic computer guidance. The failed dockings had cast a shadow over the future of the Russian space programme, and over joint missions planned with Germany next month and later with the United States. These first two embarrassing attempts ended with the cargo craft bumping into the 130-tonne space station then sliding gently past.
Food supplies on board Mir had fallen so low that the cosmonauts could stay on board for only a few more weeks.
Since no back-up space ship was ready, yesterday's delicate manual procedure has saved the three- strong Russian team on board from being sent home. This would have dashed the hopes of Valery Polyakov, a Russian doctor, who aims to break the 12-month space endurance record - extending this to 18 months. He has been in Mir since January.
Progress slid into place just after 2.40pm BST yesterday. It is carrying a number of scientific experiments that are the key to several planned joint space missions. One, a collaborative project with the European Space Agency (ESA), involves a German astronaut who hopes to join the Mir team next month.
If yesterday's last attempt to dock the Progress craft had failed, he would have been left with no experiments to do.
The ESA project is to be followed in March by another joint mission with the United States. A second doctor, Norman Thagard, plans to spend three months in Mir, breaking the American record of 84 days in space.
An American space shuttle will ferry at least two cosmonauts to Mir at the end of this mission, bringing Thagard and two others back to Earth for physiological tests.
The Russian space programme has become a key feature of the world's space missions. The Mir replacement, Mir 2, is scheduled for launch in 1997 or 1998, and will form the foundation of the International Space Station, Alpha, to be served by the US space shuttle.
Failure to dock Progress would have cast doubt on the ability of the Russians to cope with a major role in such joint projects, once these get under way in earnest. Yesterday millions of Russians watched the tricky procedure live on television. Ground authorities manoeuvred Progress until it came within 150m of Mir. All eyes were then on 32-year old Mir commander Alexander Malenchenko - a Ukrainian on his first Mir mission.
The Russians described him as 'the best in his class'. His success should secure the dollars 60m ( pounds 40m) payment from ESA to the Russians that will enable the European agency to take part in October's joint project. 'He did a great job. It was just like he was sitting in an armchair at home playing a computer game,' said the ground control spokesman, Nikolai Kryuchkov.
(Graphic omitted)Reuse content