October 11, 2010

Crew Arrives At Space Station

A Russian Soyuz space capsule arrived at the International Space Station on Saturday carrying two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut who will oversee the completion of the orbital station's construction.

The Soyuz ship docked to the station at 8:01 p.m. EDT (4:01 a.m. Moscow time), two days after launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Aboard the capsule were veteran cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, first-timer Oleg Skripochka and NASA's Scott Kelly, a two-time space shuttle flier. The new crew will remain on the station for the next six months, during which time NASA plans two more shuttle missions to deliver parts, a storage pod and the multinational Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector.

Those flights are scheduled for November of this year, and February of next and should complete assembly of the station, which has been under construction since 1998. The February mission will be led by Mark Kelly, Scott Kelly"Ëœs identical twin brother.

If the schedule doesn't change, it would be the first time in history that blood relatives are together in space.

"It's exciting," Scott Kelly said in a pre-launch interview. "I've obviously known my brother a really long time, and we're great friends, and it's a real privilege to share the experience with someone you're so close to."

The Soyuz crew joins Americans Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker and Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin, who arrived at the ISS in June, returning the outpost back to full staff.

The current mission docked without a hitch. There was evident relief at mission control outside Moscow over the flawless docking after a rare hiccup occurred last month. The return of the Soyuz capsule carrying three crew back to Earth was delayed for 24 hours when it failed to undock.

The Soyuz TMA-M capsule that docked Saturday -- Sunday Russian time -- is a modernized version of the ship used by Russia to put humans in space and the first of a new series to have fully digital systems.

After last month's undocking embarrassment, Russia's space program suffered another hiccup this week when it emerged that the Soyuz capsule set to launch December 13 had suffered damage to its container while being shipped to Baikonur.

Roscosmos chief Anatoly Perminov assured the problem was minor and that the next mission would be on schedule.

But sources quoted by Russian news agencies said a delay until 2011 was possible.

Burden on the Russian space program is set to multiply in the coming months as NASA is set to retire its space shuttle service in 2011. This means the Soyuz craft will be the only vehicle for transporting humans into space for years to come.

NASA is retiring the shuttle program after 30 years of flights due to high operating costs approaching $3 billion a year.

In preparation for the retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA will hire out the Soyuz craft to ferry its astronauts into space at $51 million per seat.

Originally scheduled to retire after two more missions, the NASA shuttle has been approved to deliver cargo to the space station one more time next summer, but has yet to receive funding.


Image Caption: The six-member Expedition 25 crew speaks to well-wishers and mission officials shortly after hatch opening. Photo credit: NASA TV


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