A Russian Soyuz spacecraft has arrived with a new Russian-American crew for the international space station. The Soyuz is substituting for the grounded U.S. space shuttles.
After a two-day orbital chase, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American astronaut Ed Lu docked the Soyuz at the station, nearly 400 kilometers over central Kazakhstan.
They begin a week of concurrent operations with the present station crew, Commander Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Nikolai Budharin. In fact, they are first visitors the trio has had since they reached the station in December. Commander Bowersox expressed relief at their arrival. "This is a real goldfish moment here, and it's great to be together, great to see these guys, and it's great to be here on station," he said.
Top Russian and American space officials gathered for the docking maneuver at Russian mission control, outside Moscow. The Russian space agency's deputy director, Nikolai Moiseyev, called it an epoch-making event. His American counterpart, Fred Gregory, termed it a beautiful docking.
Mr. Gregory's comment reflects the U.S. space agency's gratitude that Russia assumed all transport to the station after the shuttle Columbia disaster, which grounded the shuttle fleet and threatened the ability to maintain the outpost. "The international space station partnership has been tested by a great challenge. Yet, the partnership has risen to this challenge and demonstrated that, together, we are able to overcome any obstacle on this road to the future," he said.
But Russian space officials make clear that their financial situation is dire and they need help with their effort. They have asked their government for more money, to meet the increased number of flights to the space station. The head of the Russian firm that builds the required spacecraft RSC Energia chief Yuri Semyonov, told reporters that the government has promised the money. Still, he appealed for international help. "Due to all the changes that we had at the beginning of the year, we are requiring further funding and we are expecting that our partners are not just going to be observers, but [that] they will see for themselves that our cooperation is not a myth, but this is a reality," he said.
Meanwhile, the joint space station crews began transferring the small amount of cargo the Soyuz carried up and started the exchange of command. This will go on for six days, as the old crew briefs the new one on operations and safety. At the same time, the newcomers will refresh the veterans' knowledge about how to fly back to Earth aboard a Soyuz.
The old crew will land in Kazakhstan Sunday, on the Soyuz that has been attached to the station as an emergency escape vehicle. The new one will replace it.
The coming six months promise to be quiet for crewmen Lu and Malenchenko. American shuttles will not visit, so station construction is halted. This means the two astronauts will be caretakers, simply maintaining the outpost and conducting few experiments.