KALININGRAD, Russia, June 29 -- A roar of spontaneous applause reached to roof of Russia's mission control center as the U.S. shuttle Atlantis made contact with the Mir space station Thursday. At the Russian words for 'we have contact,' some 200 cosmonauts, engineers, Russian and U.S. space officials rose to their feet in the Central Flight Control building outside Moscow. When the Atlantis locking mechanism was safely secured to the Mir minutes later, NASA head Daniel Goldin exchanged exuberant hugs and kisses with Russian Space Agency chief Yuri Koptev and Kremlin aide Yuri Baturin. Cosmonauts who once contended with their U.S. counterparts in the Cold War space race praised the piloting skills of shuttle commander Robert 'Hoot' Gibson and joyfully watched as the long-awaited rendezvous unfolded. 'I don't know much about the shuttle, but everything was done brilliantly,' said Oleg Makarov, a Russian space engineer and veteran of three trips into orbit at the height of competition to conquer the cosmos. 'Very fine work.' U.S. officials joined their Russian colleagues in celebration, enjoying the view of the successful docking on the big screen at Russia's equivalent of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 'It looked absolutely effortless,' said Kenneth Mitchell, a NASA liaison officer in Moscow. 'Well planned, well rehearsed, well done -- that was really something.' NASA director Goldin was in Moscow for a biannual session of the technology and trade cooperation commission headed by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who watched the docking from the hotel where their meetings were held.
The Atlantis crew includes Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin, who will remain on Earth's only permanent manned satellite after the shuttle heads home in five days. The shuttle is scheduled to set off from the nine-year-old Russian station with the five Americans among its current crew as well as Mir inhabitants Vladimir Dezhurov, Gannady Strekalov and Norman Thagard. Thagard, 51, has been aboard Mir since he flew up in a Russian rocket 105 days ago, and has improved on previous records for length of a stay in orbit by a U.S. astronaut. NASA spokesman Mark Hess joked that Thagard's return to Earth and to the United States would mean an end to his culinary challenges aboard Mir, where jellied fish is a common meal. 'I think it's an acquired taste,' said Hess, adding that Thagard had swore he did not touch the stuff during his record-breaking stint in space.