At last the United States cavalry is arriving to rescue Shannon Lucid. Barring yet another last minute glitch, the space shuttle Atlantis will dock with the space station Mir today to ferry the 53-year American woman home after a record-breaking six months' confinement in her orbiting Russian hotel.
Originally, such a marathon was not intended. Ms Lucid, a biochemist who has been aboard Mir since 22 March, had been due to return at the beginning of August. But first a mechanical problem, and then two hurricanes delayed Atlantis's blast-off from the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida. By the time she returns to Earth on 26 September, she will have spent 188 days in space, a record both for a woman and a US astronaut of either sex.
By all accounts she has endured the ordeal in sterling fashion. Although regular e-mail and video contact with her family have made her existence more bearable, she has had to put up not only with the repeated delays in her homecoming, but also some male chauvinist Slav humour from Russian space officials (Mir would remain in pristine condition with Ms Lucid aboard, one said, "because women love to clean").
Of late, however, even the Russians have been fulsome in their praise of their uncomplaining guest. She is said to have borne her disappointments with a stoicism worthy of her Russian colleagues - deliberately chosen, according to the Mir programme manager Valery Ryumin, "because they are strong enough to show no feelings when receiving bad news".
Indeed, more problems could yet be on the way, with the failure of one of Atlantis's three hydraulic power units minutes after lift-off on Monday. The units are not used in space, but are crucial for shuttle landings. Although the craft could probably land with just one functioning unit, Nasa always likes to have two working back-ups. As of yesterday, however, no decision had been made to curtail the docked phase of the 10-day mission.
Once back on Earth, Ms Lucid's life at first will not be easy. During her half year in the gravity- free conditions aboard Mir, she will have lost weight, as well as muscle and bone strength. She will be taken off the shuttle in a chair, and is unlikely to be walking properly for at least a fortnight.
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