Space Shuttle Docks with Mir

When NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir, the event marked the beginning of an era of cooperation in human spaceflight between the two nations.

Summary of Event

In the late 1960’s, the United States was searching for a space project to follow its successful Apollo lunar landing program. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed a plan for an Earth-orbiting space station and a reusable launch vehicle, the space shuttle, which would transport crews and supplies back and forth from Earth to the space station. However, in an era when the United States was funding a war in Vietnam, the combined cost of the space station and the space shuttle was deemed excessive. NASA had to downsize its plan, proposing to build only the space shuttle, the cargo bay of which was expanded to allow it to carry much larger payloads into orbit. The original NASA plan to use the space shuttle to transport crews and supplies to a space station was finally realized on June 29, 1995, when the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir. Mir space station Aside from its crew of NASA astronauts, Atlantis brought two Russian cosmonauts—Anatoly Solovyev, Solovyev, Anatoly who had flown on three previous Russian space missions, and Nikolai Budarin, Budarin, Nikolai a novice on his first mission—to Mir. They replaced Vladimir Dezhurov, Gennady Strekalov, and Norm Thagard, who returned to Earth on Atlantis. Astronauts and cosmonauts
National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program
Space stations;Mir
Space shuttle program;Atlantis
Atlantis (space shuttle)
[kw]Space Shuttle Docks with Mir (June 29, 1995)
[kw]Mir, Space Shuttle Docks with (June 29, 1995)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program
Space stations;Mir
Space shuttle program;Atlantis
Atlantis (space shuttle)
[g]North America;June 29, 1995: Space Shuttle Docks with Mir[09250]
[g]United States;June 29, 1995: Space Shuttle Docks with Mir[09250]
[c]Spaceflight and aviation;June 29, 1995: Space Shuttle Docks with Mir[09250]
[c]Science and technology;June 29, 1995: Space Shuttle Docks with Mir[09250]
Gibson, Robert
Precourt, Charlie
Thagard, Norm

The Soviet Union launched Mir in 1986. It was the first space station to be built using the modular concept, in which individual, pressurized sections are built on Earth and launched into orbit, where they are joined together. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia took over operation of Mir, but as the space station aged, it became increasingly unreliable. Russia announced plans to replace it with Mir 2 and began developing a reusable launch vehicle, Barun, which was very similar to the American space shuttle. At the same time, having completed the development of the space shuttle, NASA had resurrected its plan for a space station, to be called Freedom. As the cost of both projects escalated, the United States decided to open its project to international participation, and Russia abandoned its plan for Mir 2, deciding instead to participate in the international project, renamed the International Space Station.

Orbiting over Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, Atlantis and Mir are docked to Mir’s Kristall module, which joins the orbiter to the space station.


In 1993, the United States and Russia signed an agreement making Russia a partner in the International Space Station. International Space Station As part of that agreement, Russia was to train NASA astronauts and allow them to gain experience working on Mir. In addition, NASA’s space shuttles would dock with Mir, providing the crews with experience in the docking maneuvers. Atlantis was the first of NASA’s space shuttles to be modified to carry the “docking adapter,” a pressurized tube connecting the hatch on the space shuttle to a hatch on Mir, so Atlantis could mate with the Mir and the crew could move back and forth without wearing space suits.

Atlantis had to be launched in a ten-minute, nineteen-second time window in order to be placed in an orbit that would allow it to rendezvous with Mir. After two postponements, on June 23 and 24, because of thunderstorms in the launch area, Atlantis was launched at 3:32 p.m. on June 27, 1995, the sixty-ninth flight of a space shuttle and the one hundredth manned space mission by the United States. U.S. Navy captain Robert Gibson commanded the space shuttle, and Air Force lieutenant colonel Charlie Precourt served as pilot. Serving as mission specialists were Dr. Ellen Baker, Baker, Ellen a physician; Greg Harbaugh, Harbaugh, Greg a former NASA manager; and Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, Dunbar, Bonnie a biomedical engineer.

Initially, Atlantis was placed in an orbit with a high point of 158 nautical miles and a low point of 85 nautical miles. This was the lowest orbital altitude ever flown by a space shuttle, picked to allow Atlantis to rapidly catch up with Mir, closing the gap of 7,000 nautical miles by about 880 nautical miles on each orbit. Three hours and thirty-nine minutes after launch, Atlantis fired its orbital maneuvering system for two minutes, raising its orbit to an altitude of 210 by 158 nautical miles, slowing the rate of closure with Mir.

As practice for this mission, the space shuttle Discovery had approached to within thirty-seven feet of Mir in February, 1995. That effort provided astronauts and ground controllers with experience trying to bring the two large spacecraft, orbiting the Earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour, together.

Ground controllers woke up the Atlantis crew at 1:30 a.m. central time on June 29 to begin preparations for the rendezvous. Shortly before 3:00 a.m., Atlantis fired its orbital maneuvering system for forty-five seconds, raising the low point of its orbit and placing the shuttle about eight nautical miles behind Mir, with a slow closing rate.

NASA flight director Bob Castle and Russian flight director Viktor Blagov decided to have Gibson proceed with the docking. By 7:40 a.m., Atlantis approached within thirty feet of Mir. For the docking, Commander Gibson positioned Atlantis directly below Mir, allowing Earth’s gravity to slow the shuttle and bring it up to the space station. To avoid any collision with Mir, Gibson had the Atlantis creep toward the space station at a closing rate of about an inch per minute. As the spacecraft passed over Lake Baikal, Russia, at a height of 216 nautical miles, the gentle docking was accomplished at 8:00 a.m. central time.

When the 122-foot-long Atlantis docked with the 112-foot-long Mir, the orbital assembly became the largest spacecraft ever to orbit the Earth, having a combined weight of almost a half a million pounds. Once the docking was accomplished, the cosmonauts on Mir greeted the astronauts on Atlantis, and the two crews exchanged gifts. The Americans brought flowers, candy, and fruit to Mir. Following a Russian tradition, the cosmonauts presented gifts of bread and salt to the shuttle crew. The combined crew of ten cosmonauts and astronauts then began five days of research projects.

On July 4, Atlantis undocked, carrying astronaut Thagard and cosmonauts Dezhurov and Strekalov home to Earth. Thagard, a NASA astronaut and physician, had been launched into orbit on a Russian rocket from the Baykonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 14, 1995. His mission was planned to be ninety days, but delays in launching Atlantis extended his spaceflight, and Thagard broke the previous American spaceflight endurance record of eighty-four days.

Atlantis continued in orbit until July 7, when Gibson fired its engine at 9:45 a.m. eastern standard time to begin its return to Earth. The space shuttle landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:54 a.m., completing its historic mission to Mir. This was the first time a shuttle returned to Earth with a larger crew than it departed with, having left two crew members on Mir but bringing three crew members home.


NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency began a new era in international space cooperation when the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir. Two decades had elapsed since the two nations’ previous space exploration effort, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in which an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soyuz capsule in 1975. Just after the Atlantis launch, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin Goldin, Daniel S. said, “You can’t make this unbelievable transition from pointing weapons at one another to working together without bumps in the road . . . but . . . this proves that if you put your mind to something and search for common interests, you can build bridges.” The event marked the beginning of an era of cooperation on the construction of the International Space Station, where the role of Russia proved critical when the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry in 2003, requiring the use of Russian Progress resupply vehicles and Soyuz capsules for crew transport while the U.S. shuttle fleet was being redesigned. National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program
Space stations;Mir
Space shuttle program;Atlantis
Atlantis (space shuttle)

Further Reading

  • Harland, David. The Story of the Mir Space Station. New York: Springer, 2005. Comprehensive history of Mir, including an account of how it was assembled and operated, the visits of the Atlantis space shuttle to Mir, and how the technology that was developed for Mir was incorporated into the International Space Station.
  • Jenkins, Dennis R. Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System—The First Hundred Missions. Cape Canaveral, Fla.: D. R. Jenkins, 2001. Describes the space shuttle, including the modifications required to dock with Mir, and provides an account of the first one hundred flights, including the first flight to Mir.
  • Reichhardt, Tony. Space Shuttle: The First Twenty Years—The Astronauts’ Experiences in Their Own Words. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2002. A series of personal accounts, written in conjunction with Air & Space magazine, describing the first two decades of space shuttle flights.

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