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Safe harbor: A Soyuz (foreground) and Progress supply vehicle docked to the International Space Station in August 2007. (NASA)

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Dockings have now taken place with four different configurations of the shuttle and Mir (approaching the Russian station, with all its protruding solar arrays, modules, and vehicles, is “like docking with a porcupine,” says STS-79 commander Bill Readdy). The STS-74 crew brought up a new docking module to attach to Mir last year, which provides greater flexibility and places the docking interface at a distance from the main station. This addition, plus the station’s different configuration and greater mass, may account for the fact that Mir crews are now feeling less of a jolt than Dezhurov and his companions experienced. Readdy says that when Atlantis pulled up to the docking port last September, Shannon Lucid and her cosmonaut crewmates hardly felt a thing.

The STS-74 astronauts even came up with a soundtrack to accompany all the slow, graceful maneuvers in space. A Strauss waltz had already been appropriated by Stanley Kubrick, and besides, it evoked Vienna, not Moscow. So Ken Cameron and his Atlantis crew went with Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” for their final approach and docking.

Precourt is now back in Houston training to command another Mir rendezvous mission; he will be the first astronaut to make a second such docking. On his first trip to Mir he spent time with his cosmonaut hosts inside the attached Soyuz spacecraft, and he has been through the complete cosmonaut training program for Soyuz dockings to Mir. As it stands, he has the inside track to become the world’s most experienced space docker.

Still, he keeps worrying about what could go wrong, what might be done ahead of time to reduce the risk, and what he might have to do should an unforeseen problem arise in orbit. His biggest fears are shuttle failures that could cause a sudden increase in closing speed during final approach. He’s also thought out another failure scenario. “I’ve told folks that I really think we’re going to see a bounce-off,” he says. “At some point there’s going to be a mechanism that doesn’t work for us right. The Russians have had it happen to them.” He pauses thoughtfully. “I hope we’re adequately prepared to deal with that.”

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