Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center on June 27, 1995 at 3:32 PM EDT and landed at Kennedy on July 7 at 10:54 AM EDT. The shuttle orbited 153 times at an altitude of 170 nautical miles at an inclination of 51.6 degrees and travelled 4.1 million miles. The mission lasted 9 days, 19 hours, 22 minutes, and 17 seconds.
STS-71 marked a number of historic firsts in human spaceflight: 100th U.S. human space launch conducted from the Cape; first U.S. space shuttle-Russian Space Station Mir docking and joint on-orbit operations; largest spacecraft ever in orbit; and first on-orbit changeout of shuttle crew.
When linked, Atlantis and Mir formed the largest spacecraft ever in orbit, with a total mass of almost one-half million pounds (about 225 tons) orbiting some 218 nautical miles above the Earth. After hatches on each side opened, the STS-71 crew passed into Mir for a welcoming ceremony. On the same day, the Mir 18 crew officially transferred responsibility for station to the Mir 19 crew, and the crews switched spacecrafts.
Docking occurred at 9 a.m. EDT, June 29, using R-Bar or Earth radius vector approach, with Atlantis closing in on Mir from directly below. R-bar approach allows natural forces to brake the orbiter’s approach more than would occur along a standard approach directly in front of the space station. R-bar approach minimizes number of orbiter jet firings needed for approach. The manual phase of docking began with Atlantis about a half-mile below Mir, with Gibson at controls on aft flight deck. Stationkeeping was performed when the orbiter was about 250 feet from Mir, pending approval from Russian and U.S. flight directors to proceed.
Gibson then maneuvered the orbiter to a point about 30 feet from Mir before beginning a final approach to station. The closing rate was close to the targeted 0.1 feet per second and the closing velocity was approximately 0.107 feet per second at contact. Interface contact was nearly flawless: less than one inch lateral misalignment and an angular misalignment of less than 0.5-degrees per axis. Docking occurred about 216 nautical miles above the Lake Baykal region of the Russian Federation. The Orbiter Docking System (ODS) with Androgynous Peripheral Docking System served as actual connection point to a similar interface on the docking port on Mir’s Krystall module. ODS located in the forward payload bay of Atlantis, performed flawlessly during docking sequence.
For next five days, about 100 hours total, joint U.S.-Russian operations were conducted, including biomedical investigations, and a transfer of equipment to and from Mir. Fifteen separate biomedical and scientific investigations were conducted, using the Spacelab module installed in aft portion of Atlantis’ payload bay, and covering seven different disciplines: cardiovascular and pulmonary functions; human metabolism; neuroscience; hygiene, sanitation and radiation; behavioral performance and biology; fundamental biology; and microgravity research. The Mir 18 crew served as test subjects for investigations. Three Mir 18 crew members also carried out intensive program of exercise and other measures to prepare for re-entry into a gravity environment after more than three months in space.
Numerous medical samples as well as disks and cassettes were transferred to Atlantis from Mir, including more than 100 urine and saliva samples, about 30 blood samples, 20 surface samples, 12 air samples, several water samples and numerous breath samples taken from Mir 18 crew members. Also moved into orbiter was a broken Salyut-5 computer. Transferred to Mir were more than 1,000 pounds of water generated by the orbiter for waste system flushing and electrolysis; specially designed spacewalking tools for use by the Mir 19 crew during a spacewalk to repair a jammed solar array on the Spektr module; and a transfer of oxygen and nitrogen from the shuttle’s environmental control system to raise air pressure on the station, requested by the Russians to improve the Mir consumables margin.
Atlantis undocked on July 4, following a farewell ceremony, with Mir hatch closing at 3:32 p.m. EDT, July 3 and hatch on Orbiter Docking System shut 16 minutes later. Gibson compared the separation sequence to a “cosmic” ballet: Prior to Mir-Atlantis undocking, the Mir 19 crew temporarily abandoned station, flying away from it in their Soyuz spacecraft so they could record images of Atlantis and Mir separating. Soyuz unlatched at 6:55 a.m. EDT, and Gibson undocked Atlantis from Mir at 7:10 a.m. EDT.
Returning crew of eight equaled largest crew (STS-61A, October 1985) in shuttle history. To ease their re-entry into gravity environment after more than 100 days in space, Mir 18 crew members Thagard, Dezhurov and Strekalov lay supine in custom-made recumbent seats installed prior to landing in orbiter middeck.
Atlantis was crewed by Commander Robert L. Gibson, Pilot Charles J Precourt, Mission Specialists Ellen S. Baker, Bonnie J. Dunbar, Gregory J. Harbaugh, Mir 19 Crew (upload) Anatoly Solovyev, Nikolai Budarin and Mir 18 Crew (download) Norman E. Thagard (US), Vladimir Dezhurov and Gannady Strekalov.