U.S. space shuttle docks with Russian space station

U.S. space shuttle docks with Russian space station

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On June 29, 1995, the American space shuttle Atlantis docks with the Russian space station Mir to form the largest man-made satellite ever to orbit the Earth.

This historic moment of cooperation between former rival space programs was also the 100th human space mission in American history. At the time, Daniel Goldin, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), called it the beginning of “a new era of friendship and cooperation” between the U.S. and Russia. With millions of viewers watching on television, Atlantis blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in eastern Florida on June 27, 1995.

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies

Just after 6 a.m. on June 29, Atlantis and its seven crew members approached Mir as both crafts orbited the Earth some 245 miles above Central Asia, near the Russian-Mongolian border. When they spotted the shuttle, the three cosmonauts on Mir broadcast Russian folk songs to Atlantis to welcome them. Over the next two hours, the shuttle’s commander, Robert “Hoot” Gibson expertly maneuvered his craft towards the space station. To make the docking, Gibson had to steer the 100-ton shuttle to within three inches of Mir at a closing rate of no more than one foot every 10 seconds.

The docking went perfectly and was completed at 8 a.m., just two seconds off the targeted arrival time and using 200 pounds less fuel than had been anticipated. Combined, Atlantis and the 123-ton Mir formed the largest spacecraft ever in orbit. It was only the second time ships from two countries had linked up in space; the first was in June 1975, when an American Apollo capsule and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft briefly joined in orbit.

Once the docking was completed, Gibson and Mir’s commander, Vladimir Dezhurov, greeted each other by clasping hands in a victorious celebration of the historic moment. A formal exchange of gifts followed, with the Atlantis crew bringing chocolate, fruit and flowers and the Mir cosmonauts offering traditional Russian welcoming gifts of bread and salt. Atlantis remained docked with Mir for five days before returning to Earth, leaving two fresh Russian cosmonauts on the space station. The three veteran Mir crew members returned with the shuttle, including two Russians and Norman Thagard, a U.S. astronaut who rode a Russian rocket to the space station in mid-March 1995 and spent over 100 days in space, a U.S. endurance record. NASA’s Shuttle-Mir program continued for 11 missions and was a crucial step towards the construction of the International Space Station now in orbit.

READ MORE: The Space Race

June 29: Buildings Collapse and U.S. Space Shuttle Docks

On this day in history, a historical theater burned to the grown, the U.S. journeys into space and meets up with Russia, and a department store collapses to the ground.

1613: The Globe Theater Burns Down

On June 29, 1613, the famous theater where most of Shakespeare’s plays were debuted, burned down.

The Globe Theater was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s acting company. The theater used materials from London’s very first permanent theater, Burbage’s Theater, built in 1576.

Before the Burbage’s Theater was built, plays and dramatic performances were performed on street corners and in the yards of inns. Although, after these performances became popular, the Common Council of London, in 1574, began licensing theatrical pieces performed in the inn yards within the city limits.

To escape the restrictions placed, Burbage’s Theater was built outside of the city limits. After the lease ran out, Lord Chamberlain’s men moved the timbers of the old structure to a new location and created the Globe.

1995: U.S. Space Shuttle Docks with Russian Space Station

On this day in 1995, the American Space shuttle ‘Atlantis’ docked with the Russian space station ‘Mir,’ which formed the largest man-made satellite to orbit the Earth.

This was a historic moment in history because it was thought to be “a new ear of friendship and cooperation” between the U.S. and Russia. Not only did the merge bring cooperation between the once rival space programs, but it was also the 100 th human space mission in American history.

At about 6:00 a.m. on June 29, ‘Atlantis’ was maneuvered by commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson to dock to the Russian station. He steered the 100-ton shuttle to within three inches of ‘Mir’ at a closing rate of one foot every 10 seconds.

According to history.com, “The dock went perfectly and was completed by 8:00 a.m., just two seconds off the targeted arrival time and using 200 pounds less fuel than had been anticipated.”

1995: Seoul Department Store Collapses

The Sampoong department store in Seoul, South Korea, collapsed on this day in 1995. This was a tragedy that killed more than 500 people.

The cause of the building collapsing was a series of errors made by the designers and contractors who built the store and the criminal negligence of the store’s owner.

During the construction of the store, it was originally going to have five floors, but the owner Lee Joon wanted to add an additional floor with a swimming pool. Though the engineers warned him, he fired them and bribed officials to get the building passed by government inspectors.

Twelve government officials overlooked the cover up of the design changes, and contractors did not use enough steel rods to support the infrastructure. Due to the bribery and negligence of the inspectors, they were later convicted of accepting bribes and put behind bars.

On June 27, a gas leak was reported, but Joon refused to close the store's doors. Two days later, on June 29, the fifth floor of the building began to show signs on the ceiling collapsing. Even after the building began to collapse, Joon only decided to move expensive merchandise out of the way.

At 6:00 p.m., the entire structure collapsed on top of hundreds of people eating dinner. Fires began to wreak havoc over the rubble of the building. These fires ended up lasting for days.

As the days turned into weeks, rescue efforts were still being organized to see if there were any survivors. One survivor was found 16 days after the collapse of the building. More than 500 people died with 900 severely injured.

U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Outer Space, Part 2: From Shuttle-Mir to the International Space Station

A technical rendition from 1993 of the STS-71/ Mir Expedition 18, a joint U.S.-Russian mission in June 1995. The rendition shows docking of the space shuttle Atlantis with the Russian Mir Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

STS-60, commanded by Charles Bolden, Jr. and carrying the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on the U.S. shuttle, launches from Kennedy Space Center February 3, 1994. Photo Credit: NASA

Cosmonaut Valeriy V. Ployakov watches as the U.S. space shuttle Discovery docks with the Russian Mir space station on February 6, 1995. Photo Credit: NASA on the Flickr Commons

Washington, D.C., May 7, 2021 – U.S.-Soviet cooperation in space was a regular, if less noticed, feature of the final years of the USSR and continued well after the emergence of independent Russia, a compilation of declassified documents and interviews posted today by the National Security Archive underscores. In the second of a two-part posting, records from Russian and American archives highlight the successes of joint operations ranging from the Shuttle-Mir program to the International Space Station.

At the same time, the documents make clear that political obstacles of various kinds routinely intervened to create obstacles to progress. Even as presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev promoted collaboration in outer space, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), often known as Star Wars, which he offered to share with Moscow, generated deep distrust of U.S. intentions on the Soviet side and concerns from American officials about technology transfers and propaganda victories accruing to their Cold War rivals.

Supplementing the written materials in today’s posting is a two-part interview with former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Jr. and excerpts from another interview with Ellen Stofan, former Chief Scientist at NASA and recently appointed Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian. Both participated in joint programs with either Soviet or Russian counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s and took away critically important lessons from the experiences.

Following the success of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, U.S.-Soviet collaboration in space continued in the 1980s with scientific information sharing and the perpetuation of bilateral working groups. Documentation published today by the National Security Archive includes several key records chronicling these ongoing common pursuits.

The first document in the posting, National Security Decision Directive Number 42, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, established his space policy, which specifically included promoting “international cooperative activities.” (Document 1) The rise to power of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 brought new opportunities for negotiations between the superpowers, such as the summit meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva and Reykjavik.[1] [2] In 1986, the Central Committee voted on a resolution on cooperation with the U.S. “in the field of peaceful space exploration,” including potentially the “coordinated and collaborative exploration of Mars.” (Document 5) A CIA report in 1987 covered Soviet perspectives on a new scientific cooperative agreement between the two countries, as well as Soviet objectives and concerns for the agreement. (Document 6) The report noted that cooperative efforts had improved “as a consequence of the general understanding on exchanges reached by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev” in Geneva and in Reykjavik, and due to Gorbachev taking steps to address human rights issues.

Despite these successes, political issues continued to threaten to disrupt cooperative efforts. Perhaps the most serious obstacle was the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and often referred to as the “Star Wars program.” SDI was a proposed missile defense system that featured both space- and Earth-based missile intercept stations. The Soviets opposed it vigorously because they viewed it as a step toward deploying weapons in space and thus giving the United States a potential first-strike capability. Reagan wrote to Gorbachev in April 1985 justifying the program against Soviet concerns, but it would remain a key irritant between the leaders for many years.[3] Reagan was even willing to share SDI technology with the Soviet Union, including options such as open laboratories and joint control of deployed systems, as discussed in a letter from CIA Director Casey to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. (Document 3) But many Soviet officials were deeply suspicious. Some believed that Gorbachev made an error in his focus on SDI during the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, while some of their American counterparts felt he had erred in not pursuing Reagan’s offer for technology sharing.[4]

At the same time, the American side had its own doubters about the wisdom of Reagan’s idea. A CIA note commenting on a March 1985 State Department proposal for U.S.-Soviet space cooperation presents a series of sharp objections from senior Agency analysts ranging from concerns about giving up technology secrets to blunting Washington’s “SDI negotiating strength.” (Document 2)

Both the U.S. and Soviet sides anticipated utilizing cooperative efforts as propaganda for their aims relating to SDI. The State Department proposal reveals some of the administration's public relations aims when it came to outer space – arguing that “cooperative space activities could act as a foil for the Soviets’ anti-SDI propaganda.” (Document 2) On the Soviet side, a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev from close advisors Lev Zaykov, Eduard Shevardnadze, Anatoly Dobrynin, and Alexandr Yakovlev in July 1986 reports on a conversation between the Soviet embassy in West Germany and German physicist Hans-Peter Dürr on his proposals for a scientist-led initiative against SDI and for the peaceful use of space, which they proposed to actively participate in. (Document 4)

Despite these political concerns and impediments, cooperation continued. Smaller-scale cooperative efforts were an important part of the process. Intensive collaborative work and frequent mutual visits went on largely under the political radar with significant results. Among other outcomes, the experience deeply affected the lives of Soviet and American scientists and thus contributed to the improvement of relations between the two countries on an individual basis. As a young scientist, the author’s mother, Dr. Ellen Stofan, used Soviet spacecraft (Venera 15/16) data of Venus for her PhD research at Brown University through a planetary science program between Brown and the V.I. Vernadsky Institute in Moscow. Dr. Stofan, a former NASA Chief Scientist and now the Smithsonian Under Secretary for Science and Research , visited the Soviet Union several times in the 1980s and spent time working with Soviet scientists. On her time in the program, Dr. Stofan said:

[T]he relationship between Brown University and the Vernadsky Institute allowed increased scientific cooperation – leading to not just an increased understanding of how planets like Venus and Mars can help us understand how Earth works, but also demonstrating that international, cooperative science means more and higher quality science. Cooperation between the then-Soviet Union and the United States helped provide a way forward, however small, to show that the two countries could and should find common ground. Having grown up in an era of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, interacting with the Russian scientists, visiting their homes and meeting their families, reminded me of the common values that we had in addition to our shared passion for understanding how our solar system works. Such programs may seem minor in comparison to large-scale programs like the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but the opportunity for scientists to work together and find common ground has a major impact on both the work produced and the attitudes of those involved.[5]

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, space cooperation was seen as one of the more promising areas for building the new partnership between the United States and newly democratic Russia. It would also help the Russian scientists who lost their jobs or funding during the post-Soviet transition crisis. It is notable that when Vice President Al Gore visited Boris Yeltsin in December 1994 (the Russian president received his visitor in the hospital where he was recovering after minor surgery), they compared the process of building a partnership between Russia, the United States, and an expanding NATO to spaceships docking in space. Gore employed the metaphor using his hands to show how carefully it should be done and Yeltsin, clearly enjoying the demonstration, also used his hands to show how it should be done – simultaneously and mutually, and not with one station chasing after the other.[6]

Surprising Story of the Forgotten Soviet Space Shuttle

The Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle lies atop its massive Energia rocket launching system.

The Buran spaceplane never lived up to its potential after it was overcome by political and economic forces beyond its designers’ control.

NASA’s space shuttle program was famous worldwide for its triumphs and tragedies. From 1981 to 2011, the space shuttles Columbia, Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis and Challenger lofted more than 800 astronauts and countless payloads into orbit over the course of 135 flights. But the program was also notable for the catastrophic loss of two shuttles and their crews. Many aerospace enthusiasts are unaware that there was a second space shuttle program in operation for much of the same time period—the Soviet shuttle, known as Buran.

Buran (“blizzard” or “snowstorm”) is now all but forgotten in the West but was a centerpiece of Soviet space efforts from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Officially designated the VKK (“air space ship”) Space Orbiter Program, the Soviet effort was conceived as a counterpoint and competitor to NASA’s space shuttle. While the two shuttles shared many similarities, they were fundamentally different vehicles.

NASA’s shuttles were primarily designed for civilian space applications, only carrying payloads for the Department of Defense on a small number of flights. Nevertheless, the Soviets were convinced that a hidden military agenda lay behind the American program. The NASA shuttles’ large payload capacity worried Soviet engineers, who were concerned the cargo bay could be used to carry weapons. The Soviets were specifically worried about space-based lasers that could potentially disable their ICBMs and satellites. As such, Buran’s designers had clear military intentions in developing their own shuttle.

The scaled-down MiG-105 experimental piloted orbiter aircraft preceded Buran. (FoxbatGraphics Image Library)

The Buran program was formally authorized in February 1976. Special cosmonaut teams were selected and began training. Initial plans called for development of the MiG-105 (which was similar to the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar) into a full-fledged spaceplane. Scaled-down versions of the MiG-105 and its successor, the BOR unmanned orbital rocketplane, were test launched. One BOR was recovered at sea and an image of the secret craft was even published in National Geographic.

Despite these efforts, the Soviets ultimately decided that their spaceplane would closely mimic the U.S. shuttle. Espionage was therefore employed to obtain as much technical information about the American space shuttle program as possible. While most of NASA’s developmental data was unclassified, the sheer amount of information to sift through was daunting. The Soviets relied on the Military-Industrial Commission (VPK) and the KGB to obtain the sensitive information and get it into the hands of their aerospace scientists. In the end, they were able to obtain enormous quantities of information from NASA-funded studies and by accessing databases at U.S. universities such as Stanford, Princeton, Caltech and MIT, all of which had teams engaged in shuttle research. This data grab saved the Soviets years of development and millions in research funding.

NASA used the shuttle Enterprise (which never flew in space) as a testbed for piloted aerodynamic studies, culminating in the so-called Approach and Landing Test (ALT) program. The ALT program studied the shuttle when it was mated to a Boeing 747, in free flight and during landing. Analogously, the Soviet shuttle could be carried on the back of an enormous Antonov An-225 Mriya aircraft. The Soviet aerodynamic testbed, known as OK-GLI (Buran Aero­dynamic Analogue), was used for free flights as well as landings, similar to those carried out by Enterprise during the ALT. Unlike its American counterpart, however, the OK-GLI had four turbofan engines and could take off and fly under its own power.

Buran hitches a ride on the back of a huge Antonov An-225 Mriya cargo plane. (SPUTNIK/Alamy)

When finally delivered in 1988, the flight article Buran (OK-1K) was eerily similar in appearance to the U.S. shuttle, but had many key differences. NASA shuttles carried seven or eight astronauts, whereas Buran could accommodate a crew of 10. Most strikingly, Buran was designed to fly unmanned if necessary, a feat the U.S. shuttles could not match. And, unlike the American shuttle, Buran had no engines to assist with its launch. The spaceplane was carried into low earth orbit by a massive Energia rocket capable of lifting almost a quarter-million pounds.

Buran flew its one and only mission on November 15, 1988. The Soviet shuttle was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome by an Energia rocket without any cosmonauts on board for a fully automated flight. Buran orbited the earth twice and made a precise runway landing at its launch site. The flight was an unqualified success, but it would be the high point of the program.

Buran lands at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on November 15, 1988, to complete its one and only space flight. (TASS/AFP via Getty Images)

The subsequent breakup and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to funding troubles for Buran. Two sister orbiters were never completed. In 1993 Russian president Boris Yeltsin cancelled the program. Buran, designed in part to dock with the Soviet Mir space station, never got a chance to perform that mission. Mir was ultimately visited by Atlantis.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the flown Buran and other key components of the program came to what can only be deemed ignominious ends. OK-1K, along with an Energia rocket, was destroyed and eight workers were killed on May 12, 2002, when the roof of its neglected hangar collapsed following a severe rainstorm. The incomplete sister ships were displayed around the former Soviet Union and subsequently mothballed. Other test articles have been variously stored in hangars, displayed in museums, left outdoors exposed to the elements, converted to attractions (including a restaurant at an amusement park) or, in the case of an elaborate, large-scale wooden test model for wind tunnel studies, simply scrapped. Verified hardware from the Soviet shuttle program, most notably Buran thermal tiles, can be purchased on eBay.

In retrospect, the Buran program seems to have been an incredible technical achievement that came to fruition at the wrong time. The Soviets had the know-how and expertise to build and operate such a marvel, but the subsequent end of the U.S.S.R. ensured that the program would never live up to its potential, unlike its American counterpart.

This article appeared in the November 2020 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!

Space Shuttle and Space Station Dock, Then Face Risk of Collision with Old Soviet Rocket

Two ships, now docked, may come close to old Soviet booster.

Space Shuttle: A Brief History

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, HOUSTON, July 10, 2011 — -- (Update: Monday morning, NASA said it had watched the orbit of the space debris for a longer period and determined it would miss the space shuttle and station.)

Space shuttle Atlantis, which safely docked with the International Space Station today, has now had a reminder that 50 years after Yuri Gagarin's first one-orbit flight, space can still be a risky business.

NASA has been notified that space debris will pass close to the space station/space shuttle Tuesday, when the one spacewalk of this mission is scheduled. Mission Management Team Director Leroy Cain says it is too early to tell what, if any, evasive maneuvers are required. They have teams working around the clock to determine whether there's a real threat to the spacecraft

The space shuttle would use its thrusters to move the space station out of harm's way.

Mission managers have an imaginary safety zone around the two spacecraft. It's shaped like a pizza box, 25 kilometers by 25 kilometers by 2 miles.

"There is a lot of junk in orbit, there are a lot of objects being tracked," Cain said. "Fortunately we have a good process for dealing with it, we have a number of spent rocket bodies, and over time these things drag down from their original orbits."

This news came after an emotional, complicated rendezvous by Atlantis with the station, the last the two are scheduled ever to make. With shuttle commander Christopher Ferguson at the controls, Atlantis pulled up beneath the station, did a slow back flip so that station astronauts could photograph its heat shield for possible damage, and then came in for docking.

The astronauts' job was complicated by a computer glitch. One of Atlantis' five main computers unexpectedly turned itself off during the rendezvous. NASA said it did not threaten the mission, but there might be trouble if a second computer quit.

"Atlantis arriving," called out space station astronaut Ron Garan. "Welcome to the International Space Station for the last time."

"And it's great to be here," Ferguson said.

Space Junk: Old 1970s Rocket

There is no word yet on the size of the object, or if it is related to a close call two weeks ago, when the ISS crew had to shelter in their Russian Soyuz return capsules. That debris came within 1,000 feet of the space station.

NASA expects any maneuvers would be made Monday night and doesn't know yet how this will affect Tuesday's spacewalk.

The item NASA is tracking is from a Soviet 1970s rocket -- its orbital debris catalog number is 4664. The incident from two weeks ago caught NASA by surprise -- and mission managers are uneasy about having 10 people on board the space station with only two Soyuz escape vehicles that seat three crewmembers each.

The space shuttle can't undock and escape that quickly and its size and sensitive heat shield make it a vulnerable target.

It is a mess up there in orbit -- there are approximately 19,000 objects larger than 10 cm, and about 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter. The number of particles smaller than 1 cm is probably in the tens of millions.

Junk larger than 10 cm is tracked routinely by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Objects as small as 3 mm can be detected by ground-based radar, providing a basis for a statistical estimate of their numbers Most of the space junk orbiting up there came from satellite explosions and collisions.

Before 2007 most of the debris was old rocket stages left in orbit, some with leftover fuel and high-pressure fluids.

When China destroyed its Fengyun-1C weather satellite for target practice in 2007, it dramatically increased the amount of space junk, and a collision of American and Russian communications satellites in 2009 added larger pieces to the debris in orbit.

How the Soviets stole a space shuttle

When U.S. space shuttles started linking up with Russia's Mir space station in 1995, both sides owed a small debt to the old Soviet secret police, the KGB. According to documents obtained by NBC News, it was the KGB that successfully stole the U.S. shuttle design in the '70s and '80s.

That theft permitted the Soviet Union to build its own carbon copy of the U.S. system, called the Buran, thus unintentionally laying the groundwork for the compatibility between the U.S. and Russian systems.

Although the Soviet shuttle flew only once in 1990, it was planned in part as a space ferry to link up with Mir. That all-Soviet linkup never took place, and the Soviet shuttle was finally abandoned in 1994. But because the Soviet craft was so similar to the U.S. version, designing a Mir linkup for Atlantis and other U.S. shuttles proved simple and efficient. In fact, the first linkup between the Mir and the shuttle Atlantis in 1995 used the very system the Russians designed for their own shuttle.

The story of the Soviet shuttle is really the story of the competition between the two great space powers in microcosm, complete with Cold War intrigue and paranoia, mirror-image competition and all manner of spies, both human and electronic. It may also be the first recorded example of spying online.

Brezhnev's paranoia
The story begins in 1974 with a secret meeting at the Kremlin. Vladimir Smirnov, head of the Soviet Union’s powerful Military-Industrial Commission, or VPK, was laying out priorities for the next year to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The VPK was the body that directed not only the military projects but also laid out strategies for obtaining the technologies.

It was to the great benefit of the VPK — like its private U.S. counterparts —to exaggerate any U.S. threat. And that, according to reports revealed years later, is exactly what Smirnov did.

“Smirnov, from VPK, in his regular report to Brezhnev, mentioned at the end of his report: the Americans are intensively working on a winged space vehicle,” according to a 1991 history of the program printed in “Kuranty,” a Moscow magazine. “Such a vehicle is like an aircraft. It is capable, through a side maneuver, of changing its orbit in such a way that it would find itself at the right moment right over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. The news disturbed Leonid Illyich [Brezhnev] very much. He contemplated it intensively and then said, ‘We are not country bumpkins here. Let us make an effort and find the money.’”

Also backing the plan was the man at the heart of the Soviet military, Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, a Cold Warrior without parallel in the old Soviet Union. The man who ran the Soviet munitions industry during World War II, he was now the Presidium member in charge of the nation’s defense and someone who could easily see the value of a “space bomber” — in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union and the United States were about to sign a treaty banning nuclear weapons in outer space.

According to some accounts, there was no unanimity among the Soviet leaders. Marshal Georgi Grechko, the minister of defense, was one who was opposed to the monstrous outlay of money required, but the VPK and other military leaders had frightened Brezhnev, then in his late 70s.

“They began to use the shuttle to frighten Leonid Illyich Brezhnev and they explained to him that damned shuttle could zoom down on Moscow at any minute, bomb it to smithereens and fly away,” one Russian journalist wrote in the winter of 1991, just before the Soviet Union went out of existence. “Brezhnev understood, yes, of course, an alternative weapon is necessary.”

Project authorized in secret
In February 1976, a decree authorizing the project was finally signed, in secret, in the Communist Party’s Central Committee and the Soviet Council of Ministers. Two other decrees laying out the military uses of a shuttle were signed later, in May 1977 and December 1981. Although the Soviets initially installed V. P. Glushko and Gleb Lozino-Lozinskiy, two of its top space scientists, at the head of the program, Col. General Alexander Maksimov, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official who ran military space and missile programs, was ultimately given command of the shuttle’s development.

With the need established and the sponsorship firmly in place, word went forth to the design bureaus of the massive Soviet space program. No one in those offices had any doubt about who was in charge.

“It is no secret to anyone in our sector . that the Energia-Buran system was ordered from us by the military,” said Yuri Semenov, developer of the Energia booster program. “It was said at meetings on various levels that American shuttles, even on the first revolution, could perform a lateral maneuver and turn to be over Moscow, possibly with dangerous cargo. Parity is needed, we needed the same type of rocket-space system.”

Choosing a design
At that point, though, a design had not been settled on. The Soviets had developed, like the United States, a pilot program in the 1960s aimed at building a reusable space plane. Called the “Spiral,” it was much like the U.S. “Dyna-Soar,” a small but efficient design that could, its designers hoped, fly off into space and return to the ground. Many in the Soviet space program thought the “Spiral” could be resuscitated as the model on which “Buran” would be built . but that was not to be.

“When the decision on the development of the Soviet aerospace system was made, the Molniya Scientific Production Association, which Lozino-Lozhinsky heads, and which had been assigned the project, proposed to use its ‘ancient’ (13 years had been lost) Spiral design,” wrote a Soviet military historian in “Red Star,” the nation’s leading military journal. “However, it was rejected with a quite strange explanation: ‘This is not at all what the Americans are doing.’”

Georgi Grechko, the Soviet cosmonaut, later told an American space historian that the decision both to kill “Spiral” and then decide to choose a U.S. design said a lot about the Soviet government.

“The Spiral was a very good project but it was another mistake for our government. They said Americans didn’t have a space shuttle [back then] and we shouldn’t either and it was destroyed. Then, after you made your space shuttle, immediately they demanded a space shuttle. . It was very crazy of our government.”

And yet the Soviet space program in 1976 was definitely in need of some fresh challenges. That same year, the Soviets quietly ended their manned lunar landing program, and the Apollo-Soyuz link-up, having succeeded the year before, was completed as well. The huge facilities and launch pads built for the N-1 moon rockets stood abandoned at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Something was needed to stand in their place.

Getting the goods
And something else was needed as well — a shortcut to help the Soviets catch up with the United States. The contract for the first two American shuttles had been let four years earlier in 1972, and the Enterprise, a full-scale model which would test the shuttle’s mettle in atmospheric tests, was nearly complete. And so the VPK was put to work, this time, to gather the technologies and materials needed.

The Soviets had two great advantages: Their own space program was world class, with tens of thousands of top scientists and engineers who could be put to work on the program and, to the Soviets’ great surprise, the United States decided not to classify its program. All the technology that would go into the shuttle would be unclassified — that is, open to the world. The only problem was a management challenge: the United States was turning out reams of material both in hard copy and in database form. The VPK was given the job of managing it.

The United States had long known that the VPK was in the technology transfer business. A classified analysis of Soviet Intelligence Services in 1974 warned of its use of KGB and GRU military intelligence agents to gather critical pieces of military and even commercial projects in the West. It had succeeded in the 1960s in gathering data critical to another failed aerospace project — the TU-144 supersonic transport, whose design had been helped by spying on the British-French Concorde and the Boeing 2707 SST as well.

But what the United States didn’t know at the time — and wouldn’t know until 1981— was the extent of the VPK’s operations and the huge amounts of money it was spending on espionage. A 1985 CIA report noted: “The VPK program . involves espionage by hostile intelligence officers, overt collection, by East Bloc officials, acquisition by scientific exchange program participants and illegal trade-related activity.”

Online espionage
The key in terms of the shuttle program was “overt collection” and specifically the use of commercial databases. In effect, the massive effort directed at the U.S. space shuttle program was among the first cases of Internet espionage, if not the first case. With all the critical documents online, it was left to the VPK, under the auspices of the KGB, to gather it all up and then circulate it to those in the space program who needed it.

The 1985 CIA analysis on “Soviet Acquisition of Militarily Significant Western Technology” described the shuttle project as the best example of the KGB’s exploitation of U.S. government databases:

“From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, NASA documents and NASA-funded contractor studies provided the Soviets with their most important source of unclassified material in the aerospace area. Soviet interests in NASA activities focused on virtually all aspects of the space shuttle. Documents acquired dealt with airframe designs (including the computer programs on design analysis), materials, flight computer systems, and propulsion systems. This information allowed Soviet military industries to save years of scientific research and testing time as well as millions of rubles as they developed their own very similar space shuttle vehicle.”

The CIA noted that “individual abstracts or references in government and commercial data bases are unclassified, but some of the information, taken in the aggregate, may reveal sensitive information.”

Moreover, said the CIA, the VPK had laid out “general guidance to collectors to acquire selected information on . the U.S. space shuttle.” In terms of priority, in fact, the report noted that “documents on systems and heat shielding of the U.S. space shuttle” was the VPK’s top need in the “Space and Anti-satellite Weapons” arena. The CIA also detailed how much the KGB had budgeted for several of the shuttle-related projects and what academic institutions were targeted by the Soviets’ shuttle effort.

A half-million rubles — then worth roughly $140,000 — had been budgeted for “documents on the U.S. shuttle orbiter control system,” the CIA noted. And shuttle-related research projects at Caltech, MIT, Brooklyn Poly, Princeton, Stanford, Kansas, Penn State and Ohio State were also listed as targets of the KGB.

So thorough was the online acquisition, the National Security Agency learned, that the Soviets were using two East-West research centers in Vienna and Helsinki as covers to funnel the information to Moscow, where it kept printers going “almost constantly.” The Reagan administration had cut the Soviets off from making direct purchases of reports through the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service and the Pentagon’s Defense Technical Information Service.

“Prior to that, they simply went from the Soviet embassy on 16th Street to the Government Printing Office on North Capitol and H Streets, provided the GPO with the name and number of the document they had gotten off the database, paid their money and took the documents back to the embassy,” said one intelligence official.

The computer center through which much of the intelligence then flowed, according to another CIA report, was located at the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow, which it identified as having strong “links” to the KGB. The report noted it was “reasonable to assume” that the chamber’s computer center tapped into western online information services.

Information bonanza
The shuttle program provided an online bonanza for the KGB. By the time of the launch of Columbia in 1981, there were 3,473 documents online related to the shuttle in general, 364 on shuttle wind-tunnel tests, 103 on the shuttle’s booster rockets, 124 on heat-resistant tiles, 605 on the shuttle’s computers and even 10 on its military applications.

Intelligence officials told NBC News that the Soviets had saved “billions” on their shuttle program by using online spying. “They didn’t have to put their orbiter through all the wind tunnel tests and computer simulations we did because our test data was available to them,” said Edward Aldridge, secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.

Walter Deeley, who ran the NSA’s counter-intelligence operations, described the Soviet acquisition of documents via commercial databases as “shift work,” meaning it required round-the-clock monitoring.

Timeline: U.S. Space Program History

Milestones and other notable events in the U.S. history of human space exploration:

— May 5, 1961: U.S. launches first American, astronaut Alan Shepard Jr., into space, on a 15-minute, 22-second suborbital flight.

— May 25, 1961: President Kennedy declares the American national space objective to put a man on the moon.

— Feb. 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth.

— Jan. 27, 1967: Three U.S. astronauts die when a fire sweeps the Apollo I command module during a ground test at Kennedy Space Center.

— Dec. 21, 1968: First manned spacecraft to orbit moon, Apollo 8, comes within 70 miles of lunar surface.

— July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin of Apollo XI spend 21 hours on the moon, 2 of those outside the capsule.

— Dec. 7-19, 1972: Apollo 17 mission that includes the longest and last stay of man on the moon — 74 hours, 59 minutes — by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt.

— May 14, 1973: Skylab I, first U.S. orbiting laboratory, launched.

— July 17-19, 1975: U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts participate in Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, docking together in space for two days.

— April 12, 1981: Shuttle Columbia becomes first winged spaceship to orbit Earth and return to airport landing.

— June 18, 1983: Sally Ride becomes first American woman in space.

— Feb. 7, 1984: Astronaut Bruce McCandless performs man's first untethered spacewalk with a Manned Maneuvering Unit off the Challenger space shuttle.

— Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger shuttle explodes 73 seconds after launch, killing its crew of seven.

— March 14, 1995: Norman Thagard becomes first American to be launched on a Russian rocket. Two days later, he becomes first American to visit the Russian space station Mir.

— June 29, 1995: Atlantis docks with Mir in first shuttle-station hookup.

— Sept. 26, 1996: Shannon Lucid returns to Earth after 188-day Mir mission, a U.S. space endurance record and a world record for women.

— Oct. 29, 1998: Glenn, now 77, returns to space aboard shuttle Discovery, becoming the oldest person ever to fly in space.

— May 29, 1999: Discovery becomes first shuttle to dock with the international space station, a multinational, permanent, orbiting research laboratory.

— Nov. 2, 2000: An American and Russian crew begins living aboard the international space station.

— Feb. 1, 2003: Shuttle Columbia breaks apart over Texas, 16 minutes before it was supposed to land in Florida.

Smoke and mirrors

A flock of eight-year-olds is fluttering around me as we enter a long, low building behind Tommy Bartlett’s Exploratory, a hands-on children’s museum and tourist destination in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I’m struck by the hulking, weirdly incongruous presence of Mir lying on its side, its long body disappearing into the distance.

This is no mock-up. It’s an actual Mir central node, one of three base station units built by the Soviets (the other survivor is stashed in a Russian warehouse). Its route to Wisconsin began when someone representing a Russian dealer offered to sell a rare automobile to the late Tommy Bartlett, owner of the Exploratory. Bartlett didn’t take the car, but he bought something else the guy was selling: this piece of Russian space history.

In its heyday Mir was the largest human-made object in space. This central node is about the size of a school bus, with a porthole leading to a chamber that has five ports, each of which would have led to a separate module. (This astronaut has some advice on surviving in a cramped space.)

On one wall is mounted a guitar that was launched with Mir to provide homegrown, on-board entertainment. Hanging nearby, looking like a pair of scuba tanks, are Mir’s oxygen generators, which burned cartridges of lithium perchlorate to produce oxygen. That’s right: burned. In a tight, cluttered area. In the vacuum of space. What could go wrong?

On February 23, 1997, Linenger and his comrades found out. One of these generator canisters burst into flames, filling Mir with acrid smoke. The crew members could barely see their hands in front of their faces, and they struggled to don gas masks—some of which didn’t work. They went to pull fire extinguishers from the walls and found them strapped so tightly in place they were virtually immovable.

“Russia reported that the fire lasted 90 seconds,” says Gutheinz. “It actually went for 14 minutes. Also, Russia said the cosmonauts doused the fire. It actually burned out on its own.”

Linenger, a Navy-trained physician, treated his comrades’ burns. He filed an incident report with NASA, and was distressed to hear the U.S. space agency pretty much repeat the Russians’ storyline.

“The NASA view was this incident was no big deal, and it was excellent training for the ISS,” says Gutheinz. “The Russians never told them there had been [other] fires before that one.”

On this day in 1995, the American space shuttle Atlantis docks with the Russian space station Mir to form the largest man-made satellite ever to orbit the Earth. – History

Cover Photo: Space Shuttle Atlantis – A view of the new Mir Docking Module, positioned in Atlantis ‘s payload bay on STS-74, ready to be docked to the Space Station.

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Shuttle Atlantis docks with space station

(CNN) -- The space shuttle Atlantis docked at the international space station on Sunday morning after officials decided there would be no need to perform a maneuver to avoid a piece of debris.

NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, had considered the maneuver to bypass the debris, whose track would take it close to the space station on Sunday.

However, officials later determined the object would remain a safe distance away.

Atlantis docked with the station about 220 miles over the South Pacific shortly before 10:30 a.m., NASA reported.

Video: Space shuttle Atlantis' final voyage Video: Crew preps for final Atlantis launch

Its six-member crew plans to deliver an integrated cargo carrier and a Russian-built mini research module to the station and bring a set of batteries for the station's truss and dish antenna, along with other replacement parts, NASA said.

This week's mission is the 32nd for Atlantis and its last scheduled flight as the U.S. space agency prepares to retire its aging shuttle fleet.

Atlantis, which lifted off Friday afternoon from Kennedy Space Center, made its maiden voyage in 1985.

NASA has plans for two other missions before the space shuttle program ends -- one for Discovery in September and the other for Endeavour in November.

During its career, Atlantis carried into orbit the Magellan spacecraft, which went on to map 98 percent of the planet Venus.

It also sent the Galileo spacecraft on its way to collect data about Jupiter and its moons for eight years.

US-Russian crew docks with space station

The Soyuz TMA-14M rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the International Space Station on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014 carrying NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russians Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova. Serova will become the fourth Russian woman to fly in space and the first Russian woman to live and work on the station. (AP Photo/NASA, Aubrey Gemignani)

(AP)—A U.S.-Russian crew docked early Friday with the International Space Station, about six hours after launching from Russia's manned space facility in Kazakhstan.

The Russian Soyuz-TMA14M spacecraft joined up with the space laboratory as it orbited 226 miles (364 kilometers) above the earth. It was carrying space veterans Alexander Samokutayev of Russia and American Barry Wilmore along with Elena Servova of Russia, making her first journey.

The capsule launched at 2:25 a.m. Friday (2025 GMT Thursday, 4:25 p.m. EDT) from the Russian-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan.

The new crew is beginning a planned six-month deployment on the ISS, joining three others already on board.

Serova is the first Russian woman to fly to space since 1997, and the fourth woman in the history of the Soviet and Russian space programs. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963.

Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in 2011, Russian Soyuz spacecraft have served as the only means to ferry crew to and from the space outpost, the latest price tag being $71 million per seat.

Earlier this month, NASA made a major step toward ending the period of expensive dependence on Russian spacecraft, picking Boeing and SpaceX to transport astronauts to the station in the next few years. The California-based SpaceX, led by billionaire Elon Musk, has indicated its seats will cost $20 million apiece.

NASA has set a goal of 2017 for the first launch from Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX is already using its unmanned Dragon capsule to deliver supplies to the space station, and is developing its manned version.

  • Member of expedition to the International Space Station Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova waves during farewell ceremony as they get up into the spacecraft Soyuz TMA-14M before the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Yuri Kochetkov, Pool)
  • Members of expedition to the International Space Station Russian cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyaev, bottom, Russian cosmonaut Elena Serova, top, and NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore, center, wave during a farewell ceremony as they enter the spacecraft Soyuz TMA-14M before the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Yuri Kochetkov, Pool)