Today in 1995, an American space shuttle docked for the first time with Mir, the Russian space station. When the shuttle, named Atlantis, docked with Mir, it formed the largest satellite to ever orbit the planet. Or at least the largest man-made satellite.
The event was both technologically and symbolically impressive. It was the 100th American space mission manned by humans. It also signaled a spirit of collaboration with Russia, formerly our greatest adversary on the world stage. Daniel Goldin, the chief of NASA, referred to it as "a new era of friendship and cooperation" between the two superpowers.
Atlantis launched on June 27, 1995, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch watched by millions of people on television.
Two days later, early on the morning of June 29, Atlantis made its final approach to Mir. The aircraft were orbiting above the planet about 245 miles above the Russian-Mongolian border. Atlantis was greeted with a broadcast of Russian folk songs, sung by three of the Russians manning Mir.
The docking procedure took about two hours, and was overseen by Robert "Hoot" Gibson, commander of the Atlantis. The space shuttle approached the space station at a speed of one foot per ten seconds. It was completed without incident, two seconds ahead of schedule and having preserved 200 pounds of extra fuel. The seven crew members of the Atlantis were able to board Mir safely.
This was the second time two ships from foreign space programs had linked in orbit. The first time was in 1975, when an American Apollo linked briefly with a Soviet Soyuz craft. The Atlantis and Mir, when conjoined, formed the largest craft to ever orbit the Earth.
Gibson and Vladimir Dezhurov, the commander of Mir, shook hands enthusiastically to mark the occasion. The crews then exchanged gifts. The Americans gave the Russians flowers, fruit and chocolate. The Russians offered the Americans bread and salt, a Russian welcoming tradition.
The two spacecraft remained docked for five days before the Apollo returned planetside. The Apollo had delivered, along with the chocolates and flowers, two replacement Russian crew members for the space station. Three previous space station occupants went home with the Americans, including two Russians and an American astronaut named Norman Thagard, who had been carried to Mir on a Russian craft and had remained there for over 100 days, a record.
NASA continued sending craft to Mir for another eleven missions. It laid the groundwork for the International Space Station, which is still in orbit.