Orbital Hookup: Atlantis Shuttle, ISS, Soyuz Crews Make Cosmic Call
The International Space Station (ISS) as seen by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis after undocking on Sept. 17, 2006 during NASA's STs-115 mission.
Credit: NASA.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Three spaceship crews made a cosmic phone call early Tuesday in a rare orbital hookup that linked 12 spaceflyers together in Earth orbit.

Astronauts aboard NASA's shuttle Atlantis, the International Space Station (ISS) and the Russian Federal Space Agency's Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft greeted one another with heartfelt hellos despite the airless vacuum of space separating their three spacecraft. The shuttle's STS-115 crew is spending its last full day in space before a scheduled Wednesday morning landing.

"It's a little crowded in the sky this morning, not only with Atlantis you and us, but also the Progress free-flying," ISS Expedition 13 flight engineer Jeffrey Williams told NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 14 commander, who sat aboard the Soyuz spacecraft with cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari - the world's first female space tourist. "We'll just have to keep eyeballs out a little more than usual."

"We're wondering if we had to hire some more air traffic controllers for the increased traffic up here," said Lopez-Alegria, who with Tyurin will relieve Williams and Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov aboard the ISS this month.

"You guys are just starting your really long journey in space, and our really short one is coming to an end much quicker than we would like," Atlantis' commander Brent Jett told the Expedition 14 astronauts, who launched with Ansari early Monday. "You're going to be impressed when you get there and I know you guys are going to have a good time."

Aboard Atlantis, where six astronauts are packing items away and rehearsing landing procedures,STS-115 mission specialist Joseph Tanner assured the space station's Expedition 13 crew that he and his crew did not in any way touch the outpost's Russian-built Elektron oxygen generator before they undocked early Sunday. A mild toxic liquid leaked from the Elektron Monday and led to a short-lived emergency aboard the ISS Monday when the Expedition 13 crew reported a smoke-like smell, though the matter was swiftly resolved and the Elektron taken off-line.

Williams said he knew the shuttle crew wasn't to blame.

"We look forward to seeing you all on the ground and reminiscing about our short mission together," Williams told the shuttle astronauts.

Atlantis' STS-115 crew is wrapping up an 11-day mission to the ISS, where they delivered a massive new addition - the outpost's first since late 2002 - in the form of two wing-like solar arrays and a pair of 17.5-ton portside trusses. The astronauts are set to land at 5:59 a.m. EDT (0959 GMT) tomorrow here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

"The weather's not looking all that good for tomorrow at KSC," Jett told the Soyuz and ISS astronauts. "It's supposed to be real good the next day, so we may end up getting an extra day on orbit, which would not be all bad."

Aboard the ISS, Expedition 13's Vinogradov and Williams are also nearing their end of their own six-month spaceflight, and will return to Earth with Ansari on Sept. 28 after a nine-day crew change. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, also an Expedition 13 flight engineer, will join Expedition 14's Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin for part of their mission.

Tuesday's early-morning ship-to-ship call began while Atlantis and the ISS - flying about 98 miles (157 kilometers) passed over Australia. The Soyuz began the call while orbiting over Russian just north of the Black Sea, and trailed both spacecraft by more than 6,400 miles (10,299 kilometers) in distance and 58 miles (149 kilometers) in altitude.

"You guys accomplished a lot," Lopez-Alegria told Atlantis' crew. "I bet it'll be nice to have a cold beer and a shower."

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