On this day in 1995, the Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-71, docks with the Russian space station Mir; for the five days the ships were conjoined, they were the largest spacecraft ever in orbit at the time. STS-71 marked the first docking of a space shuttle to a space station, the first time a shuttle crew switched members with the crew of a station, and the 100th manned space launch by the United States.
In the first U.S.–Russian (Soviet) docking in twenty years, since the Apollo-Soyuz mission, Atlantis delivered a relief crew of the two cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin, and retrieved NASA astronaut Norman Thagard. Other prime objectives were on-orbit joint United States of America-Russian life sciences investigations aboard SPACELAB/Mir, logistical resupply of the Mir, filming with the IMAX camera and the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment-II (SAREX-II).
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 (Capt., USN-Ret.) 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.
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 the five days before returning to Earth, leaving two fresh Russian cosmonauts on the space station, and bringing three relieved Russians and Capt. Thagard home. Thagard himself had ridden a Russian rocket, Soyuz TM-21, from the Cosmodrome to Mir, making him the first American cosomonaut in history.
21 years after the mission, Russian technology again found an American application, as dozens of busy technicians in St. Petersburg troll farms conjoined with less-savvy American voters to help bring history its first Russian–U.S. President.