A new astronaut crew and the first Brazilian to leave the planet are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) after a two-day trek inside a Russian spacecraft.
Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes and the 13th crew to the ISS were greeted with smiles and handshakes by Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev, who are wrapping up a six-month stay aboard the orbital laboratory.
"It certainly is a treat to see these guys up here with us," McArthur said of the visitors in a post-docking video message.
The Soyuz TMA-8 spacecraft carrying Pontes, Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams docked at the ISS late Friday at 11:19 p.m. EST (0419 April 1 GMT) following a March 29 EST launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia's Kazakhstan.
"This is the final stop on our train," Vinogradov said after the docking.
The three astronauts entered the ISS at about 12:59 a.m. EST (0559 GMT) from their perch at the Earth-facing port along the station's Zarya control module. Vinogradov and Williams will relieve the Expedition 12 crew and begin their own six-month mission.
Pontes, who made history this week as the first Brazilian to fly in space, waved his nation's flag inside the ISS while speaking with space agency officials on Earth.
"I'm happy to be here," Pontes said just after entering the ISS. "And I've got the flag too!"
Pontes will spend eight days aboard the ISS conducting experiments before returning home with the Expedition 12 crew on April 8. His Centennial Mission celebrates the 100-year anniversary of Brazil's first heavier-than-air flight by aviator Alberto Santo-Dumont, he said.
"One Brazilian cosmonaut means that a small part of each Brazilian is now in space," a Brazilian Space Agency official said during a post-docking press conference.
Pontes joined NASA as an international astronaut in 1998 hoping for a shuttle flight to conduct experiments for his country. NASA's 2003 Columbia shuttle accident, and subsequent delays, prompted Brazil's space agency to purchase a Soyuz seat from Russia's Federal Space Agency.
NASA also purchased a seat aboard the Soyuz TMA-8 flight to the ISS. Under an agreement with the Federal Space Agency, NASA is paying about $43.8 million for Williams' flight to the ISS and McArthur's return to Earth.
Shuttle visits, construction and more
Vinogradov and Williams have a busy stint scheduled for their ISS mission.
The astronauts are prepared to host two space shuttles missions - one in July and another in August - that could not only return the ISS to its nominal three-person crew, but also resume construction after more than three years of delay.
NASA's second return to flight mission, STS-121 aboard Discovery, is slated to arrive at the space station in July with Thomas Reiter, a European Space Agency astronaut who will join the Expedition 13 crew.
"After more than three years of flying two-person crews, we will maybe return the station to its full capacity," Williams said before his flight.
Space station crews have been limited to two astronauts since the Columbia accident.
The Expedition 13 crew also has two spacewalks on their docket before NASA's STS-115 shuttle flight is expected to deliver a new set of solar arrays to the outpost in late August.
Straight to work
All five astronauts aboard the ISS went straight to work after a brief, but traditional, welcoming ceremony.
The joint Expedition 12-Expedition 13 crew began buttoning down the Soyuz TMA-8 spacecraft as Pontes prepared to begin a series of science experiments in the U.S. and Russian segments of the station. Their day won't end until about mid-day Saturday.
On Monday, Williams and McArthur are expected to camp out in the space station's U.S.-built Quest airlock, where spacewalk managers hope to test an alternative way to prepare astronauts for spacewalks in NASA spacesuits - which operate at a lower pressure than the ISS cabin.
But the thought of that hard work did not dampen Vinogradov's spirits as he and his Soyuz crewmates neared the ISS.
"It's a big station, beautiful," Vinogradov said as the Soyuz approached the space station. "It's kind of dark but it's beautiful.
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