A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying American space tourist Richard Garriott and a new crew for the International Space Station docked at orbiting laboratory early Tuesday, where three astronauts were eagerly awaiting their arrival inside.
The Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft docked flawlessly at an Earth-facing port on the station's Russian-built Zarya control module at 4:26 a.m. EDT (0826 GMT) — a few minutes earlier than planned — as both spacecraft flew high above Kazakhstan, where the Soyuz launched spaceward on Sunday.
"We have capture!" said Expedition 18 flight engineer Yury Lonchakov, who commanded the Soyuz docking under the call sign "Titan" and launched alongside Garriott and new station commander Michael Fincke.
Garriott is paying $30 million for a 10-day trek to the space station under a deal between Russia's Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and the Vienna, Va.-based firm Space Adventures.
A computer video game pioneer, Garriott is the world's sixth paying visitor to the station and the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, making him the first second-generation American spaceflyer.
"I can fly!" the younger Garriott told his father and friends at Russia's Mission Control Center outside Moscow via video link after boarding the station.
His family nicknamed him Peter Pan as he floated in weightlessness. "I'm sure excited so far."
In a post-docking press briefing, Owen Garriott sat next to famed Russian cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, whose son Sergei is currently commanding the International Space Station.
"Many thanks to Roscosmos, Energia and all of the contractors who made this flight possible," the elder Garriott said during the briefing. "We look forward to the completion in about 10 days."
Aboard the station, Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov and flight engineers Oleg Kononenko and Greg Chamitoff welcomed their first human visitors since June. Hatches between the two spacecraft opened at about 5:55 a.m. EDT (0955 GMT).
"We're really looking forward to seeing them up here," Chamitoff told SPACE.com last week, adding that the jump from three to six people aboard should be fun. "It'll be definite change."
Chamitoff joined the Expedition 17 crew in June and will stay aboard with Fincke and Lonchakov for the first stage of their six-month Expedition 18 spaceflight.
His current crewmates, Volkov and Kononenko, are wrapping up their own six-month mission and will return to Earth on Oct. 23 with Garriott.
The astronauts arrived at a fully functional space station, which includes a repaired master bathroom inside the outpost's Russian-built Zvezda service module.
Thetoilet failed last week for the second time this year, but was swiftly repaired a day later, NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said from Russia's Mission Control Center outside Moscow.
Busy station mission
Tuesday's docking marked the beginning of a busy flight for both Garriott and station astronauts.
Garriott has packed his private spaceflight with a host of science experiments and educational outreach projects.
He has about 500 targets to photograph on Earth, many of them identical to those observed by his father — a two-time spaceflyer who flew to the U.S. space station Skylab and aboard a U.S. shuttle — during the Skylab 3 mission in 1973.
Owen Garriott is serving as his son's chief scientist for the spaceflight.
The joint Expedition 18 and Expedition 17 crew, meanwhile, will begin an intense handover period as Volkov and Kononenko prepare for their trip home.
Finke and Lonchakov expect to perform one spacewalk during their mission and host two visiting space shuttle missions that will bring new equipment vital to prepare the space station for larger, six-person crews.
"I really was looking forward to getting a chance to go back," said Fincke, who is making his second station flight since 2004, in a NASA interview before launch. "This time, it's much bigger than when I left it and we'll leave it in even better shape, ready for the next crew."
Fincke's wife Renita and three children — Chandra, age 7; Tarali, age 4; and 7-month-old Surya — also sent their love to the veteran spaceflyer from Russia's Mission Control. His parents Edward and Alma were also on hand.
"I'm glad to be here, thanks for letting me come to space station. I'm feeling great," a smiling Fincke told his wife, children and parents. "I'm up here with a bunch of handsome guys, that's for sure."
Richard Garriott is chronicling his spaceflight training and mission at his personal Web site: www.richardinspace.com.
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