US woman shuttles into space history

Houston - The US astronaut Shannon Lucid floated into Russia's space station for a five-month stay and hugged her new crewmates after a docking by the shuttle Atlantis. "I'm happy to be here," she said at the weekend. She is the first American woman to live on the Mir station.

Atlantis linked with Mir as it soared 245 miles above Russia. Two hours later the hatches were opened and the six shuttle astronauts and two station cosmonauts embraced and shook hands. Atlantis's commander, Kevin Chilton, said: "Mir doesn't look real, although it certainly is, and it looked gigantic on the way in. That's the unreal part of it. The real part, though, is the fact that there's a space station up here and we flew a shuttle up to it and docked to it."

The first order of business was moving Ms Lucid, 53, and her personal gear into the station, occupied for the past month by Yuri Onufrienko and Yuri Usachev, her new crewmates. Next came the traditional welcoming ceremony. Mr Chilton and his crew gave each of the Russians a chocolate Easter bunny, an autographed copy of the Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell's book Lost Moon, and a blue golf shirt. The Americans got medallions and emblems depicting a docked shuttle and station. It was Nasa's third docking with the Russian station in less than a year.

"I think it'll be a great adventure," Ms Lucid said in a television interview from Atlantis before the docking. "I'll be doing things that I haven't done before, staying a long time in space and seeing how I react when I spend a long time in space." She prepared for more than a year for her five-month stay on Mir, 10 times longer than her longest space stint to date, and four times longer than her four previous space flights combined.

No other American has spent so much time in orbit; Norman Thagard spent nearly four months on Mir last year. Nasa needs more long-duration space experience before it starts to build and staff an international space station in a few years.

Ms Lucid, a biochemist and the first woman to fly in space five times, is to remain on Mir until August, when Atlantis returns with her replacement, the Nasa astronaut John Blaha.

Ms Lucid expects her stay to be tolerable, if not enjoyable. Unlike Mr Thagard, who had limited food selection and sparse family contact, Ms Lucid chose her meals and has been promised regular calls home. She will spend most of her time doing science experiments.

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