Atlantis and Mir
As I wrote two days ago, the last time the photo of a space shuttle docked to a space station was taken, it was in 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia’s Mir. In the photo above, taken by a Mir cosmonaut as Atlantis departed, five astronauts bid farewell to Mir after a three-day visit in November 1995. It was the third Mir-NASA missions, during which the shuttle used its robotic arm to attach a docking tunnel to the Mir, so that future shuttles could dock without getting too close to the station’s delicate solar panels.
On June 29th 1995, Atlantis became the first US spacecraft to dock with a Russian spacecraft since the Apollo-Soyuz mission two decades earlier. During the Cold War, Mir-NASA would have been not only unthinkable, but also antithetical to what the space shuttle stood for.
In fact, even the International Space Station was initially conceived as a Cold War venture; when he greenlit the project in 1984, Ronald Reagan harbored Kennedyesque ambitions to one-up the Soviets and their puny Mir. With their enormous cargo bays, the shuttles became a crucial tool for these ambitions. (Nothing revealed these Cold War ambitions more than the names of these space stations. Mir meant Peace, while throughout the 1980s, NASA planned to launch another space station called Freedom).
Then suddenly, the space race was history, and nine Mir-NASA missions were carried out between 1995 and 1997, with Atlantis only flying seven straight missions. Last months of the joint project were terse, as the mission battled near-disasters; the aging Mir posed many problems to the shuttle astronauts. When Mir was launched into orbit on Feb 20th 1986 — less than a month after the Challenger exploded, it was planned to be in orbit for only five years, but flew for thrice that length of time. The Russians had initially planned to deorbit the abandoned Mir in early 2000, but thanks to some private investors, it lived for a year more. It finally came down on March 23rd 2001.