Russia's Soyuz docks at space station
KOROLYOV, Russia - A Russian spaceship carrying a U.S.-Russian crew and an Italian astronaut docked Sunday at the international space station, launching a mission that paves the way for the first U.S. space flight to the orbiting outpost since the Columbia explosion two years ago.
Fred Gregory, NASA deputy administrator, congratulated Russian space officials and said the resumption of U.S. space shuttle flights was on schedule.
"The return to flight activities for the shuttle appears to be on time," Gregory said. "We are hopeful that we'll be able to launch within the first window," which he said was May 15-June 3.
The shuttle program has been suspended for two years, with the Russian Soyuz capsule — a relatively light 7 tons — being the only means of getting astronauts to the station since Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003. Russian cargo ships alone have delivered fresh supplies during the interim.
At Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, engineers monitored the docking via a video feed from a camera affixed to the spaceship and broke into applause when they saw that the automatic parking system had operated flawlessly.
The two were due to return to Earth along with Italian Roberto Vittori from the European Space Agency on April 25.
The outgoing crew has also packed all their possessions, experiment results and photos and videocassettes they will take back with them to Earth, he said.
They will be replaced by Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips, who will have the key task of observing the condition of the insulating tiles as the Discovery approaches the station, conducting a photo survey of the exterior of the shuttle while it is maneuvering prior to docking.
The 46-year-old Krikalev has logged 624 days in space on missions both to the ISS and the Russian space station Mir. At the end of the current mission, his sixth, Krikalev will have spent 800 days in space — more than any other astronaut.