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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soyuz Crew Closing In on Space Station

KOROLYOV, Moscow Region — The first residents of the international space station drew closer to their new home with each lap of Earth on Wednesday and got a surprise call from Russian Mission Control.

U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd, the station’s skipper, didn’t recognize the female voice speaking to him, almost exactly 24 hours into his flight aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

"Shepster, do you know who you’re talking to?" the woman asked from the control center outside Moscow. He named someone, but the woman said it was his wife — Beth Stringham-Shepherd. She’s his strength and conditioning coach, and will monitor his exercise following his arrival at the ISS Thursday. Shepherd’s stunned reaction: "Whoa!"

After some chitchat about the astronaut’s treadmill and cycling exercises aboard the space station, Stringham-Shepherd told her husband it was great to hear his voice. She also told him his heart rate was a respectable 109 beats per minute at liftoff.

"Love you, honey," the astronaut called out.

"I love you, too," she replied and then said hello to her husband’s crew mates, Russian cosmonauts Yury Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalyov. "You guys looked awesome," she said.

The crew also received a boost Wednesday from President Vladimir Putin.

"It’s up to you, the first permanent crew on the international space station, to open a new chapter in the history of international space exploration: to make habitable the orbital ‘house’ that has been created through the labor of specialists from various countries," Putin said in a telegram.

He called the ISS a "clear and convincing example of mutually beneficial cooperation, which is capable of uniting people of different nationalities for solving key tasks in scientific progress."

One day into their planned 115-day mission, Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalyov were about 17,000 kilometers from the space station and closing the gap by about 1,000 kilometers with every passing orbit.

The crew reported everything was going well aboard the Soyuz, a three-man capsule similar in size to the U.S. space agency’s Gemini spacecraft that carried just two astronauts at a time in the mid-1960s. Shepherd, who is close to 180 centimeters, fits the height restrictions, but at 84 kilograms he surely must feel cramped.

"We’re having a pretty good day in orbit. We’re getting a lot done," Shepherd told flight controllers. "Sergei and Yury are doing a great job as everybody told me, and we’re looking forward to a good docking tomorrow."

This will be the first time a Soyuz capsule docks with the international space station, parts of which have been flying for two years. Space shuttles have made five trips to carry up supplies and new components. And an unmanned Russian cargo ship, called Progress, has linked up just once.

That Progress ship undocked Wednesday to make room for the Soyuz’ arrival and plunged through the atmosphere 3 1/2 hours later over the South Pacific. Shuttle astronauts had unloaded all its contents and stuffed it with packing material and trash.