Three new astronauts boarded the International Space Station (ISS) amid cheers, hugs, bread and salt from the outpost's two-man crew early Sunday after the successful docking of a Russian-built spacecraft.
Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, NASA astronaut John Phillips and Italy's Roberto Vittori happily entered the ISS after two days of cramped spaceflight inside their Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft.
Krikalev and Phillips, the crew of ISS Expedition 11, are relieving the space station's current caretakers - Expedition 10's Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov - who have been living aboard the outpost since October 2004.
"Thanks for a great docking and thanks for coming," Sharipov told the arriving astronauts as their Soyuz spacecraft docked at the ISS.
Vittori, an Italian astronaut representing the European Space Agency (ESA), will spend eight days conducting science experiments while the ISS crews hand over control of the space station.
During the rendezvous and docking, the ISS and Soyuz spacecraft passed into the Earth's shadow, obscuring both vehicles in darkness.
"We are going into eclipse and it seems the station is disappearing," Krikalev told Russian flight controllers. "We see the station to the right, but barely."
Expedition 11's Soyuz TMA-6 capsule docked at the Russian Pirs docking compartment at 10:20 p.m. EDT on April 16 (0220 April 17 GMT), arriving one minute late. At 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) today, the three Soyuz astronauts glided into the space station, the first visitors in six months for Chiao and Sharipov.
"We're glad to have the Expedition 11 crew on board and look forward to the next week of hand over activities," Chiao said during a video link with flight controllers and ISS program officials from Russia, Italy and the U.S.
Chiao, Sharipov and Vittori will return to Earth on April 24 after handing control of the ISS over to the Expedition 11 crew.
A busy hand-over
The five astronauts aboard the ISS have a busy day ahead of them.
Immediately after a post-docking conference with flight controllers and space station officials, the joint-astronaut crew began an 11-hour work day. For Vittori, that means setting up the experiments he will work with over the next eight days, while the Expedition 10 and 11 crews will begin unpacking the Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft.
Krikalev and Phillips are expected to be the first ISS crew in more than two years to be on station during a NASA space shuttle mission. The space agency's first two shuttle flights since the Columbia accident are scheduled to visit the station during the six-month Expedition 11 increment. The first shuttle flight, NASA's STS-114 mission aboard the Discovery orbiter, is expected to arrive at the ISS sometime between May 15 and June 3.
"In a way, it's a stepping stone in getting back on the track we were on before the Columbia accident," Phillips said of the Expedition 11 mission during a preflight interview.
NASA's three remaining orbiters have been grounded since the loss of Columbia and its crew on Feb. 1, 2003. Since then, ISS crews have relied on Russia's robust Soyuz spacecraft to reach the station and return home.
Phillips and Krikalev will conduct two spacewalks during their mission and receive two automated cargo shipments aboard Russian Progress spacecraft. They also hope to receive a third crewmember during the second shuttle flight, STS-121 aboard Atlantis, during their ISS stay.
None of the new ISS astronauts are strangers to the space station.
Krikalev is setting a series of spaceflight records during Expedition 11, among them becoming the first Russian cosmonaut to fly six missions, the first astronaut to visit the ISS three times and - at the end of this flight - the all-time high for time spent in space (800 days).
Phillips and Vittori are both making their second trip to the space station, though Expedition 11 marks the first long-duration flight for Phillips, who will serve as the mission's NASA ISS science officer.
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 10
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 11