This story was updated at 1:39 p.m. EDT.
The first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) arrived at the orbital laboratory Friday alongside a veteran cosmonaut and Malaysia's first astronaut to complete a two-day chase aboard their Russian spacecraft.
ISS Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, of NASA, made her space station return at about 10:50 a.m. EDT (1450 GMT) as her Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft docked at the orbital laboratory. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor accompanied Whitson to the ISS, where the outpost's current three-man crew gave them a warm welcome.
"The biggest gift is our friends who are here on time," said cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, the station's current Expedition 15 commander. "Everybody is smiling and happy, so the fun is only about to begin."
Malenchenko, an Expedition 16 flight engineer, commanded the Soyuz TMA-11's flight as it docked at an Earth-facing berth on the station's Russian-built Zarya control module while both spacecraft flew 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Central Asia.
"This looks just like Darth Vader's ship," said astronaut Julie Payette, serving as spacecraft communicator at NASA's ISS Mission Control in Houston, Texas, after seeing views of the space station from Soyuz cameras.
Crew change ahead
Whitson and Malenchenko, both veterans of past ISS crews, are beginning a six-month spaceflight and will replace Yurchikhin and Expedition 15 flight engineer Oleg Kotov on the space station during a nine-day crew swap. NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, currently aboard the ISS, will stay on for the first stage of the Expedition 16 mission.
Yurchikhin and Kotov are due to land Oct. 21 to complete their own six-month mission to the space station. Shukor, a trained orthopedic surgeon who is flying under a commercial agreement between the Malaysian government and Russia, will spend about nine days performing science experiments and observing the Earth before returning home with the Expedition 15 crew.
"I feel very well and I have lots of Russian and American friends up onboard with me here," said Shukor, who spoke to his father from orbit via a video link. "I love you very much and when I come back I hope share my experiences with you and with all the Malaysian people."
Malaysia's Science, Technology and Innovations minister Jamaludin Jarjis thanked Russia's Federal Space Agency, NASA and their ISS partners during a post-docking press conference at Russia's ISS Mission Control.
"Without your contributions we wouldn't be able to see one of our men in space," Jarjis said. "We are committed to remaining a permanent member of this [space] community."
months in space
Expedition 16 marks the second flight to the ISS for Whitson and the third for Malenchenko, with Russian and NASA mission managers touting them as their most experienced ISS crew.
Both astronauts spent about 185 days aboard the ISS, Whitson as an Expedition 5 flight engineer in 2002 and Malenchenko as Expedition 7 commander in 2003. Malenchenko also visited the ISS during NASA's STS-106 shuttle flight in 2000 and is a veteran commander of Russia's Mir Space Station.
Whitson said that long-duration experience will come in handy on Expedition 16, during which her crew hopes to host up to three visiting NASA space shuttle crews, Europe's first unmanned cargo ship and two automated Russian resupply ships.
"Yuri and I will both be ready to step in very quickly," Whitson said in preflight NASA interview. "Which, I think, we’re going to need because this mission is, a very aggressive mission."
Each of the NASA shuttle missions -- the first of which is set to launch Oct. 23 -- will bring a new flight engineer to replace the third slot on Whitson's crew as well as a major addition to the ISS structure.
The shuttle Discovery is slated to deliver the Harmony connecting node to the ISS later this month, with the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory due at the station in December. A Canadian-built addition to the station's robotic arm and the first segment of Japan's three-part Kibo laboratory are currently scheduled to launch in February.
"[W]e have a very exciting mission planned," Whitson said. "I'm looking forward to all the new elements that we're going to be able to ad to the International Space Station."
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- Complete ISS Expedition Coverage