Soyuz Crew Docks Safely With Space Station

ReutersAmerican astronaut Edward Lu being greeted by the crew of the international space station after the successful docking Monday.
KOROLYOV, Moscow Region -- The three residents of the international space station helped two newcomers through the hatch Monday, the start of a five-day hand-over that will be fraught with new challenges in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster.

U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin welcomed American Edward Lu and Russian Yury Malenchenko aboard the space station after their Soyuz TMA-2 capsule successfully docked.

The old crew will show Lu and Malenchenko around the station -- much changed since the two were there in 2000 -- and brush up their own knowledge of the Russian Soyuz, which they will use to return to Earth on Saturday.

Originally they were to return in the shuttle Atlantis, but the U.S. shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on Feb. 1, killing all seven people on board.

Applause erupted at Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, when the Soyuz docked with the ISS at 9:56 a.m. about 400 kilometers above the Earth.

"I am just so happy and proud to see everything work out so well," Lu's mother, Snowlily, said at Mission Control.

About an hour and a half later, once the Soyuz was completely sealed to the ISS, Budarin pulled open the station's hatch, and Malenchenko and Lu floated inside.

All five men then crowded together for a video linkup with Mission Control. They grinned as NASA and Russian space officials congratulated them on a job well done.

"We're very, very proud today at the work of our international team," Bowersox answered.

Malenchenko said he was shocked at how much the outpost has grown since he was there. "It has become so big and beautiful," he said. "We are very glad to be here, very glad to see our friends."

He and Lu blasted off Saturday from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on their way to the $60 billion station.

Frederick Gregory, deputy administrator of NASA, called Monday's maneuver a "beautiful docking."

"The international space station partnership has been tested by a great challenge. The partnership has risen to the challenge and demonstrated that we are able to overcome any obstacle on this road to the future," he said at a news conference at Mission Control.

As the investigation into the Columbia disaster continues, it is unclear when shuttle flights will resume. Until then, the Soyuz and the Progress cargo ship are the only links with the space station. Officials say it is important to maintain a constant presence on the station to keep it in working condition.

The change in plans has thrown the Russian and U.S. space programs into some uncharted territory: Lu and Malenchenko will be the first permanent ISS crew of two people instead of three. They were forced to leave behind Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri so that they could take along extra supplies in the smaller Soyuz.

Saturday's ride to Earth, meanwhile, will be the first time U.S. astronauts have returned in a Soyuz. Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin are familiar with the technology, since a Soyuz is kept at the station as a lifeboat. However, the crew did not count on returning in it and will get a refresher course from Malenchenko and Lu.

The three returning crew members will be taking back an older Soyuz already docked at the station, while the one that carried Lu and Malenchenko will stay up there with them in case they need to quickly evacuate. The two are to remain at the station until October.

The old and new crews will also try to fit some celebrations into their busy schedule: Pettit turned 48 on April 20, and Budarin turns 50 on Tuesday. Lu and Malenchenko brought gifts for them, Russian media reported.

Back on Earth, the key question now is how to secure additional funding for Russia's space program so that it can continue to pick up the slack left by the shuttle's grounding. Russia's space budget is about 5 percent of what it was at the end of the Soviet era.

"We are counting on the government to fulfill its promises and, naturally, we are counting one our [foreign] partners," said Yury Semyonov, director of Energia, the company that builds Russian spacecraft.

The issue of funding will be on the agenda when officials from NASA and the Russian Aviation and Space Agency meet May 5.

U.S. law bars additional payments to Russia's space agency unless Washington confirms Russia has not transferred missile technology or nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to Iran in the previous year.

U.S. officials have suggested other nations involved in the station could fill the gap.

Despite the unresolved issues, those who watched the docking from Mission Control said an important hurdle had been overcome.

"Everyone is proud -- not just for what Ed is doing, but for NASA and the international space station and for the space program as a whole, especially after the Columbia," Lu's fiancee Christine Romero said.