Two astronauts and one cosmonaut safely arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday docking just hours after leaving Earth behind to begin a half year of science investigations and maintenance.
A Russian spacecraft carrying cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, NASA's Terry W. Virts and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti docked with the orbiting lab less than six hours after their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in western Kazakhstan.
The five hour, 47 minute flight by the Soyuz from launch to docking took the same amount of time to travel by car from Houston to New Orleans, noted NASA spokesperson Kyle Herring. It tied to the minute as the fastest flight by a manned spacecraft to the space station.
"We have contact," exclaimed Shkaplerov at 9:49 p.m. EST, as the Soyuz docking mechanics began to drive the two spacecraft together during an orbital sunset 262 miles over central eastern Pacific Ocean. The hard mate was followed by hooks and latches closing and a series of leak checks to ensure that seals between the hatches were air tight.
The hatches were officially opened at 12:00 a.m. on Monday, and the new crew floated into the massive complex greeted by station commander and NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russian flight engineers Alexander Samoukutyaev and Elena Serova. Hugs and welcomes greeted the arriving crew as they exchanged words and smiles.
Hatch opening was delayed by the Soyuz crew an extra twenty minutes as they ensure the there was a good air pressure equalization. Samoukutyaev opened the station's hatch on time. His crew then waited patiently, even invoking some humor by taking a tool and acting like he was banging on the Soyuz closed hatch.
The new arriving crew were so starved that they broke into a meal during the traditional family and friends conference shown live on NASA TV. The crew noted they felt fine, but had not eaten since last night. They used the opportunity to play with their food in zero-G to the laughter of the those on the ground.
Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforeti will live and work in earth orbit until mid-May 2015, a time when they will board their Soyuz for the three hour return home.