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TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — NASA’s first major space station construction job in orbit was performed Tuesday by a University of Tennessee graduate.

Mission specialist Chris Hadfield, a 1992 UT Space Institute graduate, maneuvered a 15-foot, 9,000-pound Russian-built docking tunnel from the rear of the space shuttle Atlantis cargo bay to within inches of a docking ring.

Mission commander Ken Cameron then fired shuttle jets which raised Atlantis and linked the tunnel and the docking ring.

The docking tunnel will allow a safer linkup with the orbiting Russian space station Mir when it and Atlantis rendezvous early Wednesday.

Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut making his first shuttle flight, used a 50-foot shuttle crane to reposition the tunnel from a cargo bay platform to another tunnel leading to the shuttle crew cabin.

“We’re doing something no one’s ever tried before, trying to build this thing and install it,” Hadfield said. “It’s very similar to what’s going to be done for the international space station assembly.”

During the first docking last summer, astronaut Robert Gibson had to steer Atlantis perilously close to the space station while negotiating an array of Mir’s solar panels.

When Atlantis leaves Mir later this week, the docking tunnel will remain attached to Mir, providing an additional 15 feet of clearance for future shuttle missions to the station.

Hadfield, a major in the Canadian Air Force and a test pilot, earned a master’s degree in aviations systems at UTSI. His thesis was on high-angle attack aerodynamics of the F-18 fighter.

“He was selected from about 8,000 applicants for the astronaut program,” said UTSI professor Ralph Kimberlin, a member of Hadfield’s thesis committee.

“Most of those test pilots secretly want to be astronauts. That’s a long-term goal for most of those who go through the test pilot program.”

Hadfield graduated from UTSI in May 1992 and reported three months later to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Referring to Hadfield’s delicate and successful maneuver of the docking tunnel, Kimberlin said: “(He’s got) good test pilot’s hands.”

Ten UTSI alumni became NASA astronauts. The Space Institute is located near Tullahoma, midway between Nashville and Chattanooga.