KOROLYOV, Russia – A Russian cargo craft docked Tuesday at the international space station, carrying fuel, food and water in a supply mission made critical by the loss of the Columbia and the grounding of the remaining space shuttles.
Maneuvering on autopilot, the unmanned Progress M-47 linked to the station two days after lifting off atop a Soyuz-U rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The 16-nation space station has depended on shuttles to deliver most supplies. With the other shuttles grounded pending the investigation into the Columbia disaster, Russian missions now remain the only link to the international outpost.
"The docking went normally, without any problems whatsoever," Yuri Semyonov, head of the company that makes the Progress, said at mission control outside Moscow, where Russian space officials and cosmonauts watched on a giant screen and burst into applause when the spaceship moored to the station.
The event drew the most extensive media attention in years.
The Progress brought about 2.75 tons of fuel and other supplies, including food, water and parcels for U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin.
Semyonov said that U.S. and Russian space officials are now pondering ways to run the orbiting complex during the break in shuttle missions.
"We are OK on food and fuel," Semyonov said. "The most critical situation is with water ... since in the past U.S. space shuttles have delivered a lot of water."
There is a water regeneration unit on the station and mission control spokesman Valery Lyndin said the crew has sufficient reserves to last until the next Progress supply mission, set for June.
Mission control chief Vladimir Solovyov said a Soyuz spacecraft is set to blast off for the station in late April with a replacement crew.
Cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov said the next crew would likely include just two men, instead of the usual three, and that they would remain in orbit for six months instead of four.
In the past, U.S. shuttles have ferried long-term crews to the station, while Russian rockets have carried cosmonauts and space tourists on short visits, using a fresh Soyuz craft and leaving it behind as an emergency lifeboat for the station's crew.
The Columbia disaster has sparked fears in Russia that NASA may decide to suspend work on the station and leave it temporarily unmanned.
"We must do everything to prevent the collapse of the international space station project, which is an accomplishment of all mankind," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Tuesday at the Khrunichev space center, the nation's top rocket manufacturer.
Ivanov, who headed to New York for a U.N. Security Council session Wednesday on Iraq, said he would emphasize the need to push ahead with space cooperation in meetings with U.S. officials.
"The loss of the space shuttle Columbia is our common tragedy," Ivanov said. "But we must get over this tragedy and continue joint space research."
Russia must send two Soyuz capsules and three Progress supply ships to the station each year under an agreement with partners in the project. Without shuttle missions, up to six Progress ships will be needed to continue running the station, Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev said, according to the Interfax-Military News Agency.
One Progress costs about $22 million, a price Russian officials have said will have to be picked up by their partners if extra ships are needed.
Although it normally takes two years to produce a Soyuz or a Progress, Semyonov -- the head of RKK Energiya, which makes both spacecraft -- said it can build them more quickly if needed.