Shuttle blasts off

CAPE CANAVERAL (AP) Space shuttle Atlantis blasted off Tuesday on a historic flight to link up with Russia's space station Mir and bring home an American astronaut who has been in orbit a record-breaking 31/2 months.

After days of rain, the weather was nearly perfect as Atlantis roared from its seaside pad at 3:32 p.m. and pierced low clouds. Thunderstorms had forced NASA to postpone the flight twice late last week.

Atlantis will spend nearly two days catching up to Mir and dock with it on Thursday, 245 miles above Earth. Thagard and his Russian crewmates will immediately swap places with the two Russians who flew up on the shuttle.

Atlantis will bring eight people back; the first time a U.S. spacecraft will return with more people than it left with.

Thagard is the first American to be launched on a Russian rocket ship. If Atlantis returns to Earth as planned on July 7, he and his comrades will have been in orbit 115 days, a U.S. endurance record.

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