KOROLYOV, Russia – A Russian spacecraft docked flawlessly and ahead of schedule at the international space station Monday, delivering an American space traveler and a new two-man Russian-American crew.
Applause erupted from the family of U.S. millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen (search) at Russian Mission Control (search) in Korolyov outside Moscow when the Soyuz TMA-7 capsule's docking was announced about 5 minutes before the 9:32 a.m. (1:32 a.m. EDT) target.
When Krista Dibsie, Olsen's 31-year-old daughter, was asked how her father felt, she said: "He's never felt better. He actually talked to the doctor and said he felt excellent."
"I can't wait to see him back on Earth," she said as her 4-year-old son Justin sat on her lap, holding his crayon drawings of rockets.
The docking was conducted automatically; in the past, technical problems have forced capsule pilots to manually dock, a tense procedure that risks damage to the station.
The crews opened the air locks about three hours later and the Soyuz passengers met face-to-face with Russian Sergei Krikalev (search) and American John Phillips, who have inhabited the orbiting station since April.
Astronaut William McArthur and cosmonaut Valery Tokarev will man the station for the next six-month stint. Olsen will return to Earth Oct. 11 with Krikalev and Phillips on another Soyuz spacecraft.
At least two spacewalks are scheduled during Tokarev's and McArthur's six-month mission as well as many scientific experiments, including medical checks and tests on different metals and building materials.
The ITAR-Tass news agency said McArthur, Tokarev and Olsen were greeted with the traditional Russian welcome of bread and salt.
Footage broadcast on Russian television showed Olsen carrying a video camera as he floated into the station, where he bumped his head on the ceiling. Later, the five men were shown posing for photographs, waving and smiling.
ITAR-Tass said Olsen spoke briefly to his daughter and grandson after boarding the station.
Since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, the United States has depended on Russian Soyuz (search) and Progress craft to ferry its astronauts and supplies to the orbiting space station. Discovery visited the station in July, but problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank cast doubt on when the shuttle would fly again.
On the eve of the Soyuz blast off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Russian space officials warned that they could not guarantee McArthur's return next spring unless NASA paid for the flight.
But a U.S. law passed in 2000 penalizes countries that sell unconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran — and Russia is helping Iran build an $800 million atomic power plant, despite concerns Tehran will build nuclear weapons.
The U.S. Senate has agreed to amend the measure and lift a ban on NASA (search) purchases of Soyuz seats until 2012. The House has yet to act on it.
NASA's international space station program manager, William Gersteinmaier, said Monday that McArthur would get home one way or another.
"We have a way home for him either on the shuttle or on the Soyuz," he told reporters at Russian Mission Control, but would not say whether the astronaut would be able to return to Earth on schedule in April.
The European Space Agency, which has had astronauts on the station in the past, could send up another craft to the station as early as the end of 2006, said Anatoly Perminov, chief of the Russian space agency.
The cash-strapped Russian agency has turned to space tourism to generate money. Olsen is the third non-astronaut to visit the orbiting station, reportedly paying about $20 million. The first two space tourists were California businessman Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth a year later.
Olsen has said he preferred the term "space flight participant" to "space tourist."