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Astronaut stays on as NASA delays shuttle to Mir


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- It's a good thing that NASA astronaut Norman Thagard packed an extra change of clothes when he went into space with the Russian cosmonauts in March.

He won't be home as soon as expected.

Dr. Thagard, 51, a physician and veteran of five previous flights, made history March 14 when he became the first U.S. astronaut to be launched aboard a Russian rocket and the first to join cosmonauts aboard the space station Mir.

He was supposed to be picked up by the NASA shuttle Atlantis in early June in the first docking between a U.S. shuttle and Mir.

That docking was postponed yesterday for the second time, said NASA spokeswoman Lisa Malone. It could come as late as the last week in June.

The Russians are having trouble getting a much-needed set of solar panels and other hardware for the Mir into space, said NASA spokesman Rob Navius of Mission Control in Houston.

The panels, which convert the sun's rays into electrical power for the space station, must be attached to Mir some 20 to 30 days before Atlantis arrives. Cosmonauts also must install other devices to be brought up on the same Russian supply mission.

The work includes spacewalks to attach the docking device that Atlantis will use to connect with Mir.

NASA has set June 19 as the new tentative launch date for Atlantis, Ms. Malone said. The launch could be as late as June 24.

The delay is causing NASA managers to juggle the rest of the shuttle launch schedule for the summer.

NASA leaders will decide this month whether to go ahead with a scheduled launch of the shuttle Discovery on June 8. The Discovery crew will deploy a tracking and data relay satellite that sends communications and television signals between shuttles and the Earth.

Ms. Malone said the Discovery mission could be shortened to accommodate the Mir docking.

"We can't have two shuttles in space at the same time because our Mission Control facility in Houston is equipped to manage only one shuttle at a time," she said.

So Dr. Thagard, married and the father of three, will continue doing medical experiments on himself and crew mates and continue getting used to the long period in space. Mir has plenty of food and water because it is manned by Russians all year long.

Dr. Thagard is the 44th visitor to the Mir space station, the 13th foreigner.

Over the next three years, five U.S. astronauts will serve aboard the Mir as preparation for building the international space station, on which construction is scheduled to start near the end of the decade. The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency are partners in the project.

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