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  • One Legacy Of The Space Shuttle
    Posted by Frank Morring, Jr. 1:24 PM on Apr 13, 2011

    On the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic spaceflight, Eileen Collins told a story about working with the Russians.

    The first woman to command a space shuttle, Collins described the negotiations that went into getting Russian space officials to agree to let the space shuttle Discovery approach the Mir space station on the first flight of the Russian-American Space Program in February 1995. The crew was involved in negotiations over procedures for the test of a shuttle's ability to rendezvous and formation-fly with the Russian station, and they were difficult.

    At first, the Russians would only allow the shuttle to fly within 1,000 feet of Mir. That was nowhere near close enough to gather the data that would be needed to learn how to conduct an actual docking, and over months of talks the two sides whittled down the approach distance in steps. Finally, the Russians agreed to let Discovery conduct proximity operations only 30 feet from the jewel of their space program.

    Once the mission was underway, Collins recalled, Discovery experienced problems with three of its reaction control system thrusters. One of them -- at the front of the orbiter -- started leaking hydrazine through its nozzle. In space the toxic propellant froze into a dangerous snowstorm of hydrazine ice.

    Despite the best efforts of the crew and their controllers in Houston, the leak continued -- slowed to a trickle but still a contamination threat to Mir's solar arrays and other sensitive surfaces. Collins and her crewmates feared their primary mission objective would be scrubbed. But to their  surprise, Russia's experts pitched in and helped their U.S. counterparts figure out a way to fly the leaking shuttle up to the 30-foot mark and gather the needed data. It worked, and the way was open for the in-space cooperation that has made the International Space Station possible.

    blog post photo
    U.S. astronauts spent almost 1,000 days on Mir, once the docking procedures had been worked out. NASA photo.

    "All that tough negotiating that we had done was just their style," Collins said during a session at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. "It's just their culture.  We learned how to work together. It reminded me that sometimes small failures can lead to some pretty important lessons learned .... So part of Discovery's legacy, which we don't often talk about, is the role that it played in international cooperation and diplomacy."

    Collins was part of a panel of shuttle commanders who shared a little about each of the shuttles in the U.S. fleet. In their presentations and a subsequent press conference, they all expressed dismay that NASA is retiring the shuttle fleet without a replacement in sight to continue the human push beyond low Earth orbit to explore the Solar System. Most disagreed with the decision to cancel the Constellation Program that set out to do that, and none was happy that U.S. astronauts will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsules to reach the ISS for the foreseeable  future.

    But Collins had made an important point that was underscored by Joe Engle, who flew the space shuttle Enterprise -- an atmospheric test article that gathered flight data for the orbiters to  follow -- at the beginning of the shuttle program.

    "I don't want to ride on Russian spacecraft for years and years, but we've got a number of years where we won't have any options," said Engle, a retired Air Force major general. "I think we ought to remember how fortunate and perhaps grateful we should be that we have developed the trust and confidence with the Russian space agency, at all the working levels -- from the nut turners and the guys all the way up ... we've developed a good close relationship.  We have somebody that we can go to now and say we don't have a vehicle. We're going to have to work with you."

    Tags: space11, os99, shuttle, astronauts, Russia, Mir

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