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2 Atlantis crewmen prepare for spacewalk

Gearing up for what will be a first for NASA, an American and a Russian donned bulky suits and collected their tools and equipment for Wednesday's spacewalk from the shuttle Atlantis.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski and cosmonaut Vladimir Titov, both Atlantis crew members, were to venture this afternoon out of the shuttle, which was docked at Russia's Mir station.The hatches between Atlantis and Mir were closed before the five-hour spacewalk to facilitate a shuttle rescue in the unlikely event someone's tether broke. As an extra safety measure, the men were wearing jet packs they could use to propel themselves back to the orbiting complex.

"All aboard that are coming aboard," shuttle commander James Wetherbee said as soon as the hatches shut this morning.

The two Russians inside Mir planned to hook up a new computer brought up by Atlantis as the spacewalk was under way. The station's central computer repeatedly has failed in recent weeks.

Parazynski and Titov won't be the first astronaut-cosmonaut pair to perform a spacewalk; two other such sets did so from Mir this year. But Titov was to become the first person from outside the United States to conduct a spacewalk from an American ship.

The two were to retrieve four suitcase-shaped experiment boxes that were attached to Mir's docking module by Americans last year.

The 55- to 60-pound boxes contain paint samples, fibers, metals and other materials. Researchers want to know how exposure to space affected the materials, which could be used for external surfaces on the planned international space station.

Parazynski, 36, and Titov, 50, also were to fasten a funnel-shaped, 120-pound plug to the outside of the docking tunnel. Future spacewalkers might use the plug to seal the hole that would be created if they removed a Mir solar panel damaged when a cargo ship struck the station in June.

The Atlantis crewmen would not, however, look for punctures caused by the crash. NASA considered adding the task but decided there wasn't enough time.

In a spacewalk last month, Mir commander Anatoly Solovyov and American astronaut Michael Foale unsuccessfully searched for holes.

Foale was replaced on Mir last weekend by David Wolf, whose four-month mission was approved by NASA despite objections from some members of Congress - including Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah - who believe the 111/2-year-old station is no longer safe.