New Astronaut Crew Takes Shape Aboard Space Station
Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin (right), flight engineer Sunita Williams (center) and flight engineer Oleg Kotov, answer questions from during their crew change activities aboard the International Space Station in April 2007.
Credit: NASA TV.

A new astronaut crew is coming together aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineers Oleg Kotov and Sunita Williams are taking control of the ISS from two Expedition 14 astronauts bound for Earth.

"We're really just happy being here," Kotov, a cosmonaut making his first flight for Russia's Federal Space Agency, told this week during a space-to-ground video link. "With all six months, we'll continue to do a good job."

Kotov and fellow cosmonaut Yurchikhin are replacing veteran NASA astronaut Michael "Mike LA" Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 14 commander, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail "Misha" Tyurin, who are due to return to Earth on April 20 after their own seven-month space mission.

"Well, it's sort of bittersweet," Williams, a NASA astronaut who joined the Expedition 14 crew midway through the mission and is staying on for part of Expedition 15, told "LA and Misha, they were sort of like my parents and this was my first flight, so they sort of led me along the way and taught me how to live and work in space."

The joint crew celebrated Russia's Cosmonautics Day Thursday to honor the 46th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic April 12, 1961 launch that ushered in the era of human spaceflight.

Yurchikhin said the Expedition 15 mission did not begin April 7 when he launched into orbit aboard Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft with Kotov and American space tourist and billionaire Charles Simonyi. Simonyi is paying between $20 million and $25 million for a 13-day spaceflight to the ISS under an agreement between the Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures.

"Expedition 15 began with Suni's launch, not with our launch," Yurchikhin said of Williams' December 2006 launch to the ISS aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery.

The sort of orbital dance between NASA shuttle flights and Soyuz launches required for ISS Expedition crew swaps left it uncertain that Williams would be aboard the ISS when Yurchikhin and Kotov arrived. Her replacement, U.S. astronaut Clayton Anderson, is slated to arrive at the ISS during NASA's planned STS-118 shuttle mission and himself will be relieved by fellow spaceflyer Daniel Tani on a subsequent orbiter flight.

"There were times that we all, I think, doubted that we might not get up here at the same time," Williams said. "We really hoped that it would happen and the other day, when the hatch opened and I saw their smiling faces, it was great to have it all become a reality."

The Expedition 15 mission includes multiple Russian and U.S. spacewalks, as well as several challenging ISS construction activities with visiting shuttle astronauts. New solar arrays, massive girder segments and the Harmony connecting node are slated to arrive at the ISS aboard visiting shuttles during the spaceflight.

"We hope that we'll be able to accomplish all of our tasks successfully," said Williams, adding that she hopes to spend some more time looking out the station's windows since her return to Earth has been delayed until Anderson arrives due to launch delays with NASA's next shuttle flight.

Meanwhile, with Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin set to return to Earth alongside Simonyi, Williams said she is welcoming Yurchikhin and Kotov into her orbital family.

"I think we're going to have a wonderful time here together," she added.

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