It took the deft hands of space station commander Sergei Krikalev to dock a new cargo ship at the International Space Station (ISS) Saturday after the unmanned spacecraft's autopilot could not complete the job.
A problem with a Russian ground station prevented flight controllers from uploading final docking commands to the unmanned Progress 18 cargo ship, prompting Krikalev - a veteran cosmonaut and commander of ISS Expedition 11 - to ease the spacecraft into a docking port via remote control, NASA officials said.
The manual docking occurred at 8:42 p.m. EDT (0042 June 19 GMT) - about two minutes earlier than scheduled - as the ISS flew over Eastern Asia. Krikalev used the Russian-built Telerobotically Operated Rendezvous Unit (TORU) manual docking system inside the space station's Zvezda module to guide Progress 18 into port.
"Excellent," Krikalev told Russian ISS flight controllers as Progress 18 docked successfully. "It was very helpful to have all the TORU training, please say 'Thank you' to my trainer for me."
Krikalev and Expedition 11 flight engineer John Phillips were expected to crack open Progress 18's hatch Saturday evening and beginning the multi-day unloading process on Sunday.
Progress 18's successful docking ended a two day's of orbital catch-up for the vehicle, which launched atop a Russian-built Soyuz rocket on June 16 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The spacecraft is currently docked at the aft end of the station's Russian Zvezda service module, occupying the same port its predecessor - Progress 17 - used during its time at the ISS. Krikalev and Phillips discarded Progress 17 on June 15 after filling it full of trash, waste and other unneeded items.
With its successful docking, Progress 18 brings with 4,662 pounds (2,114 kilograms) of cargo to the Expedition 11 crew. About 3,100 pounds (1,406 kilograms) of those supplies are dry cargo, including food, equipment and experiment hardware.
But Progress 18 also delivered vital replacement parts for the space station's primary source of oxygen, the Elektron generator, which failed in May. The Elektron device uses the process of electrolysis to separate water into breathable oxygen and waste hydrogen, which is then dumped overboard.
The generator's failure forced Krikalev and Phillips to consume first the oxygen supplies aboard the Progress 17 spacecraft, then dip into solid oxygen-generating candles to maintain their breathable atmosphere.
Progress 18 contains about 40 additional oxygen-generating candles, as well as 242 pounds (109 kilograms) of breathable oxygen and 926 pounds (420 kilograms) of water, NASA officials said.
The spacecraft also delivered a new camera to the ISS that the Expedition 11 crew will use to photograph the thermal protection tiles of much-anticipated space shuttle Discovery during a pre-docking maneuver.
Discovery is slated to launch no earlier than July 13 and will be the next spacecraft to visit the ISS if it makes its launch window, which closes on July 31. The space shuttle's STS-114 mission will mark NASA's first orbiter flight since the Columbia disaster in 2003, which led to the loss of both the Columbia shuttle and its seven-astronaut crew during reentry.
Since then, only Russia's unmanned Progress and manned Soyuz spacecraft have been able to ferry new crews and supplies to and from the space station. Discovery will not only resupply the ISS during its much-anticipated flight. It will also test a series of new processes and equipment to increase shuttle flight safety.
Krikalev and Phillips are expecting two space shuttles to dock with the ISS during their six-month mission, which began in mid-April when they first boarded the orbital laboratory. In addition to Discovery's July spaceflight, the crew also anticipates the arrival of the Atlantis orbiter and its STS-121 crew in early September.
The next cargo ship due at the space station, Progress 19, is slated to launch on Aug. 24, 2005.
Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 11