CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 27 -- Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Tuesday, headed toward an orbital perch at the Mir space station and a place in history as the first U.S.-Russian joint spaceflight since a solitary Cold War stunt 20 years ago. With afternoon storms building in the west, the shuttle scooted off its launch pad on time at 3:32 p.m. EDT with a ground-shaking roar and a blazing cloud of smoke and flame. Two launch attempts last week were nixed by rain and thunderstorms. 'We were all kind of biting our fingernails for the last three hours of the countdown,' said former astronaut Loren Shriver, who heads the shuttle mission management team. 'The weather did hang in for us.' Strapped inside Atlantis were two Russian cosmonauts slated to spend the next three months aboard Mir: Anatoly Solovyev, 47, who, over four spaceflights, already has spent more than a year in orbit; and first- time flier Nikolai Budarin, 42. Also aboard the shuttle were five Americans, all experienced space fliers: commander Robert 'Hoot' Gibson, 48, co-pilot Charles Precourt, 39, flight engineer Gregory Harbaugh, 39, payload commander Ellen Baker, 42, and astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, 46, who trained in Russia as a backup Mir crewmember. Once docked with Mir, they will meet fellow astronaut Norman Thagard, 51, who has been aboard the space station since March. Thagard, as well as the two Russian cosmonauts already on Mir, are to return to Earth aboard Atlantis on July 7.
Atlantis' docking with Mir is scheduled at about 9 a.m. EDT Thursday. Although docking at a space station was an original goal and purpose of the shuttle program, the linkup with Mir will be the first in the shuttle's 69-flight history. The shuttle is outfitted with a Russian- built docking ring that Gibson and his crew will have to perfectly align with a docking port on Mir for the two, 100-ton spacecraft to meet in orbit. If successful, the spaceships will remain linked for five days so astronauts can unload equipment, food and supplies for the new Mir crew. In addition, a series of medical tests of Thagard and his Russian crewmembers, Gennadiy Strekalov, 54, and Vladimir Dezhurov, 32, are scheduled to begin in a Spacelab module in Atlantis' cargo bay. Unlike the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975, the Atlantis-Mir mission is intended to demonstrate U.S. and Russian commitment to merge their manned space programs. NASA plans to fly seven shuttle missions to Mir through 1997, then pool resources to build, manage and operate a new international space station -- together with partners Japan, Europe and Canada -- by the end of the decade. Atlantis' mission is the third of eight flights planned for this year and NASA's 100th piloted spaceflight.