A new station crew and space tourist are closing in on the International Space Station (ISS) and due to catch up with the orbiting lab Saturday after launching two days earlier.
Expedition 19 commander Gennady Padalka is set to guide a Russian Soyuz spacecraft into a port at the station at 9:15 a.m. ET (1315 GMT). The vehicle, which lifted off Thursday at 7:49 a.m. ET (1149 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, will also ferry flight engineer Michael Barratt of NASA and paying civilian Charles Simonyi, the first repeat space tourist, to the station.
Padalka and Barratt will replace the space station?s current core crew, Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke of NASA and flight engineer Yury Lonchakov of Russia. Simonyi will return to Earth with the Expedition 18 crew on April 7.
A third member of the Expedition 19 crew ? Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata ? is already aboard the space station awaiting his crewmates. Wakata, Japans? first long-term resident of the station, arrived aboard the shuttle Discovery last week.
Padalka, a Russian cosmonaut who previously commanded Expedition 9 in 2004, will be the first person ever to command a space station crew twice when he takes the ISS helm during a change of command ceremony planned for April 2.
"Space station is a good example, very outstanding example, [of] how people can work together, can cooperate together, just using different technologies, we can supplement each other," Padalka said in a preflight interview. "And thank God all our nations, at last our countries, our agencies and people themselves, have matured in their ability to work together in space on behalf of all mankind."
Simonyi plans to spend his foray at the station conducting scientific research, doing educational outreach activities, and taking photos of Earth. Simonyi booked this trip through the U.S. firm Space Adventures, paying $35 million to the Russian Federal Space Agency for the chance to take a second vacation to the orbital outpost. Simonyi's first trip to space was in 2007.
The waiting space station residents watched video footage of the Soyuz liftoff on Thursday from space.
"We're looking very forward to welcoming them aboard in just a few days," Fincke said. "It's going to be great to have them on board. Congratulations on another picture perfect launch."
A few hours after docking, the three incoming spaceflyers will open the hatches between their craft and the station and be greeted by the current ISS residents at a welcoming ceremony scheduled for 12:10 p.m. ET (1610 GMT).
The 12-day crew exchange will be a busy time filled with scientific research activities and training for the new arrivals. ?Wakata, who arrived at the ISS March 17 on Discovery, will stay on to join the new Expedition 19 crew as a flight engineer. He is serving as his country's first long-duration crewmember.
SPACE.com will provide full coverage of Simonyi's second space tourist flight and the Expedition 19 mission with reporter Clara Moskowitz and senior editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.
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