Crewmembers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) welcomed the arrival of a Russian spacecraft bearing their replacements and South Korea's first astronaut early Thursday.
Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko and South Korean spaceflyer So-yeon Yi pulled in at the station aboard their Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft, which docked with the outpost's Earth-facing Pirs module at about 8:57 a.m. EDT (1257 GMT).
The two vehicles were flying over northern Kazakhstan when they connected.
"Helly Peggy, Hello Yuri!" Volkov said to current space station residents Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko after the docking.
The three rookie spaceflyers launched on April 8 at 7:16 a.m. EDT (1116 GMT) from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Yi's journey represents a landmark achievement for her country.
"We are proud to have our first Korean astronaut," said Hong-yul Paik, head of the state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute, at a press conference at Russia's ISS Mission Control after the docking. "I believe that through this program, the cooperation between Russia and Korea will be strengthened ... It's a great moment."
The crew opened the hatches between the space station and the Soyuz spacecraft at 11:40 a.m. EDT (1540 GMT).
Shortly afterward, the six spaceflyers gathered for a welcoming ceremony where they spoke with international dignitaries at the Russian mission control center outside Moscow.
Volkov, the first second-generation spaceflyer to reach space, received congratulations in Russian from his father, famed cosmonaut Alexander Volkov.
Yi also received well-wishes from Korean spaceflight representatives.
"I feel really great," she said. "I will try to do my best and I will spend all my energy for Koreans."
After speaking with a family member in Korean, she made a heart shape with her arms above her head.
Whitson, who served as ISS Expedition 16 commander, and Yuri Malenchenko, Expedition 17 flight engineer, will be relieved by Volkov and Kononenko.
The third current station inhabitant, U.S. astronaut Garrett Reisman, will stay onboard as a flight engineer for the new Expedition 17.
"It will be breaking in a new crew of myself plus Sergei Volkov, will be the new space station commander, and Oleg Kononenko, who will be the new flight engineer, along with myself," Reisman said in a preflight NASA interview. "We also have coming up as part of that taxi crew, the first South Korean astronaut, so it's a very exciting time with lots of people coming and going as you can tell."
He will officially become a member of the new mission when he exchanges his custom-made Soyuz seat cushion with Yi, who is due to ride back to Earth with Whitson and Malenchenko April 19 on a Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft.
The almost 11-day crew-swap period will be a busy time, filled with science experiments and training activities for the new crew.
"Actually I expect it's going to be a very interesting but a hard time, really a hard time," said Volkov, who will serve as commander of the new Expedition 17 mission, in a preflight NASA interview.
Yi, a 29-year-old mechanical and bioengineer, will stay onboard for the handover period as part of a $25 million commercial arrangement between Russia and South Korea.
During her stay she will perform science experiments and educational activities.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak watched the launch of his country's first astronaut in a live broadcast from Seoul City Hall's outdoor plaza, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
He said Yi's mission "will be used as a stepping-stone for the country's aim to become a top-seven space power within 10 years' time, and would help South Korea launch its own space vehicle carrying its own satellite by 2020," according to Yonhap.
Yi, Malenchenko and Whitson are slated to land on the steppes of Kazakhstan next week after a 3½-hour journey home from the space station.
Whitson, the first female ISS mission commander, and the record-holder for the woman with the most spacewalking time under her belt, will be returning home after a six-month stay aboard the orbital outpost.
The new Expedition 17 members will be the first crew to begin their stay on a space station that includes hardware from all of the participating countries.
Their mission will serve to help install the new Japanese Kibo laboratory on the station, prepare the orbital lab to host larger six-person crews in 2009 and oversee the departure of Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Jules Verne.
"I think one of the most exciting parts [is that] we are going to undock ATV, that I think the whole program has been waiting for a very long period of time," Volkov said in a preflight interview.
The mission marks the first trip into space for both Volkov, who is a second-generation spaceflyer (his father was famed cosmonaut Alexander Volkov) and for Kononenko.
"As far back as I remember myself I always wanted to become a cosmonaut," Kononenko said in a preflight interview. "After I graduated from high school I made a conscious decision to go to the aviation institute and I wanted to become a cosmonaut. Maybe for a human it's not so very good to have just one goal in life, but so it is with me."
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