Commander Charlie Precourt and Pilot Dom Gorie landed Discovery
at precisely 2 p.m. EDT on June 12, 1998, they ended the operational
phase of the Shuttle-Mir Program and delivered Andy Thomas back to Earth
after his 41⁄2 months onboard Mir. The landing culminated 975
days spent in orbit by the seven U.S. Mir astronauts, including 907
days spent as Mir crewmembers and an 812-day continuous U.S. presence
in space. NASA now had firsthand experience of staging and running a
multiyear space station program, as well as a new pool of long-duration
spaceflight veterans to turn to for guidance and advice.
The landing also marked the end of the beginning of the International
Space Station Program. For the next several years, most of NASA’s Shuttle
flights would be in support of the International Space Station. Russia’s
venerable and aging Mir space station would see its last regular crew
leave the outpost on August 28, 1999, while discussions continued about
when—and whether—to deorbit the space station Mir.
One STS-91 crewmember, who understood both the significance and the
nostalgia of this last Phase 1 mission, was 58-year-old Mission Specialist
Valery Ryumin, the Russian Director of Shuttle-Mir. In 1957, Ryumin
was a trainee at the Soviet’s Bureau of Experimental Machine Building
when its top-secret project, Sputnik, became the world’s first artificial
satellite. He went on to help develop all Soviet orbital stations, beginning
with Salyut-1. A veteran of three spaceflights, Ryumin passed his one-year
cumulative time in orbit mark during STS-91, which was his first space
mission in 18 years. He was able to learn Shuttle operations and to
examine the conditions onboard Mir.
After launch and before rendezvous, the STS-91 crew opened Discovery’s
payload doors, activated the SPACEHAB module and the Alpha Magnetic
Spectrometer payload, filled water bags for transfer to Mir, and examined
the docking system. The crew also watched for the Russian space station.
A happy Andy Thomas first saw Discovery "as a point of
light out on the horizon, like a bright star. Then you just make out
that it was not a star, that it actually was the Shuttle. Then, of course,
it came closer and you could see it clearly. It just got closer and
closer, and then at one point you feel the whole station shudder, and
you know that they’ve made contact and have latched on. It was a great
moment." Hatch openings and a ceremony followed with the now-traditional
shared meal. With all the preparations for docking, neither crew had
eaten a meal in over 12 hours.
Once onboard, Ryumin was shocked by Mir’s onboard clutter. He told
Commander Precourt, "Charlie, this place is in bad shape."
Mir was "awful … worse than I imagined … unbelievable … unsafe."
But, as Precourt recounted, after a few days the former Soviet Army
tank commander had reacclimatized to what Mike Foale had called Mir’s
"frat house" conditions. Ryumin said, "Well, you know,
I think I could get used to staying up here…. Maybe I'll just stay."
As others had, Ryumin warmed to Mir’s peculiar charm.
the other hand, Precourt had been to Mir three times and had seen it
grow with the additions of the Priroda, Spektr, and docking modules.
He said that, other than the fact that Spektr was sealed off, "the
condition of the inside of the space station was better than it was
on my previous two visits. The air was cleaner, it was a better controlled
temperature, it was drier, [and] the walls of the surfaces of the structure
everywhere were nice and dry."
The Shuttle crew delivered more than 1,100 pounds of water and almost
4,700 pounds of cargo, experiments, and supplies to Mir. They also conducted
science investigations, including the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, whose
Principal Investigator was Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting. This 31⁄2-ton
particle detector was designed to look for antimatter left over after
the creation of the universe, according to the Big Bang theory, and
signs of "dark matter," theorized to constitute most of the
On Flight Day 5, the crew released a fluorescent tracer gas into the
depressurized Spektr module, hoping to locate the breach in Spektr’s
hull that resulted from the collision with a Progress resupply ship
in 1997. If lighting conditions were right, the gas would appear as
a dull green cloud. The crew could not detect any leaks at this time
or when the experiment was repeated after undocking. However, the procedure
may prove useful in the future on the International Space Station.
Before the undocking on Flight Day 7, Mir Commander Talgat Musabayev
presented Precourt with a two-foot wrench. "Charlie, take this
wrench," Musabayev said. "It’s sort of a relay stick from
an old lady, station Mir, to the International Space Station."
Precourt responded, "We’re going to need this for all the work
that we have ahead of us."
Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center on June 12, 1998, bringing
the operational aspect of the Shuttle-Mir Program to an end. On the
whole, the Shuttle-Mir rendezvous and dockings had been so flawless
that their difficulty and significance went unnoticed by many.
more about the STS-91 mission and crew.
Chapter - Looking Back, Looking Forward!