American astronauts once again flew into orbit yesterday, and ballerina Gelsey Kirkland was back dancing with American Ballet Theatre. If the nation as a whole was on tenterhooks about the first occurrence, the ballet subculture was apprehensive about the second right up to curtain time, given the preceding circumstances. Both restorations, however, appear to have been successfully accomplished.

In Kirkland's case the site wasn't outer space but the Kennedy Center Opera House last night. On the heels of a ballet about the return of a prodigal son, dance's most notorious prodigal daughter returned to the ABT fold. The occasion was rife with poetic ironies. Kirkland had been discharged by ABT last December in Washington, on the eve of the company's previous visit -- now she was rejoining the troupe in the same city, for the closing performance of the current engagement. She was dancing, moreover, a romantic duet with ABT director Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom she had referred to by unmistakable implication a few days ago as "impossible" to work with -- even though her own fame in attributable in very large part to her past partnership with him.

Fortunately for her own welfare and that of ballet's future, Baryshnikov chose to ignore her ill grace, preferring, as he said, to judge an artist by deeds rather than words. And so the pair took to the stage last night in Jerome Robbins' "Other Dances," inserted in the program after the opening "Prodigal Son."

The audience was, understandably, terrifically keyed up for the big moment. An audible sigh of relief passed through the house at the evening's start, when the customary announcement of cast changes passed over the danger spot. Bravos erupted on the couple's entrance in the Robbins, before the dancing began; when it had ended, there was a standing demonstration, a barrage of bouquets, multiple curtain calls, stamping and screaming.

Inevitably, one tended to see some aspects of the performance as self-referential symbolism. At the close of the first Mazurka, Kirkland was on her knee before Baryshnikov -- the penitent forgiven. In the work's finale, one glimpsed Kirkland's teasing impishness of old. At this point, the two were smiling at each other, in keeping with the playful flirtatiousness of the choreography -- providence alone knows what those smiles cost their wearers. At the very end, during a shoulder lift, Kirkland's skirt flew in front of her partner's face, leaving him standing there "headless"; she leaned down laughingly from her perch and pulled the garment aside, to the huge merriment of the crowd.

Inevitably, too, the performance itself was anticlimactic to the fact of its happening. Most viewers were too happy over the reunion to care seriously how "good" it was. In fact, neither Kirkland nor Baryshnikov -- consummate artists that they are -- danced particularly well, relative to their familiar standards. It wasn't surprising -- he was at the end of a lengthy, eshausting tour, the first on which he'd borne the complex burden of management, as well as the strain of dancing; she has danced only sporadically in the past year, and is clearly not in peak shape. There were, to be sure, flashes of the qualities that have made them the stellar figures they remain -- his brilliance and swashbuckling ardor; her subtly beguiling lyricism. The important thing is that they are back together. It was evident once more last night that there are ways in which this was a match made in heaven, even though events prove the devil must have had a hand it it, too.

In "Prodigal Son," Magali Messac made a strikingly seductive, heartless Siren, but George de la Pena was an unconvincing prodigal, and Eric Weihardt lacked resonance as the austere patriarch. Hilda Morales and Michael Owen looked pallid and stiff as the lead couple in "The Leaves Are Fading," but the effulgent choreography was especially well served by Lise de Ribere, Christine Spizzo and Cheryl Yeager. The concluding "Push Comes to Shove," with a cast headed by Baryshnikov, Elaine Kudo, Pamela Nearhoof and Kristine Elliott, was a thorough gas; the audience, primed for each gag and double take, was with it every second and gave it the thunderous send-off befitting a splendid season finale.