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Astronauts, cosmonauts cheer, laugh as Atlantis docks with station

January 15, 1997

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ Astronaut John Blaha and his two Russian crew mates whooped it up today as the shuttle Atlantis crew floated into space station Mir to bring him home.

Blaha, whose four-month flight aboard the Russian station is coming to an end, shouted ``Welcome! Welcome!″ and flashbulbs went off again and again as the six astronauts arrived.

``It’s nice to see everybody,″ an exuberant Blaha said. ``Welcome to space station Mir.″

The 54-year-old retired Air Force colonel and five-time space flier is being replaced by Dr. Jerry Linenger. Blaha patted Linenger on the back and hugged each of the other astronauts.

The group cheered and tore open packets of bread and salt _ the traditional Russian welcome. Kicking off a 4 1/2-month stay on Mir, the 41-year-old Linenger asked for seconds.

``Home looks great. It looks fantastic,″ Linenger said. ``John looks good. Everybody looks good, happy ... going to be a good life.″

The shuttle astronauts, wearing American-flag socks, offered a sack of fresh oranges to the cosmonauts.

The nine space travelers came together after Atlantis docked with Mir 240 miles above Russia late Tuesday. The astronauts could see Blaha’s face in a porthole as they closed in.

About six hours after docking, Blaha officially became a member of the Atlantis crew and Linenger joined the Mir team.

``Have a fantastic, exciting voyage,″ Mission Control told Linenger.

Blaha, the third American to live on Mir, said he had looked out a window earlier in the day and saw Atlantis about eight miles from the station.

``It was a shining star. It got bigger and bigger,″ he said. ``The sun came up, and bam! You saw the shuttle and it was quite a beautiful sight. Watched it come in and it was fantastic.″

Atlantis locked onto Mir for the fifth time as the two sped around the Earth at 17,500 mph.

Blaha and the cosmonauts waited in the docking tunnel for the shuttle hatch to open, motioning for the astronauts to come in.

After all the cheering and embracing, the astronauts and cosmonauts got down to business. They will transfer nearly 3 tons of gear and experiments from one ship to the other during the five days the two are linked.

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