KOROLYOV, Russia — After a "smooth ride" through space, the capsule carrying a new U.S.-Russian crew and the world's first paying female space passenger docked at the international space station Wednesday.
Officials at Russia's Mission Control applauded as the ship carrying Iranian-born American telecommunications entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria hooked up with the orbiting station in a trouble-free automatic docking following a two-day journey.
"Somehow our Russian friends and partners are able to make these operations look routine, but those of us in the space business know that these matters are not routine and in fact very difficult, and so it's a testament to their skills that they can make it appear to be routine," said NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden, who was on hand to watch the docking with other U.S., Russian and European space officials.
A couple of hours after the docking, the new crew floated into the space station, welcomed by its current residents, who treated them to a festive lunch. Ansari, who smiled broadly, was clad in a bright yellow polo shirt and an X Prize baseball cap. Ansari and her family were among the key financial backers of the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight.
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Ansari's family and relatives of other astronauts were at Mission Control to witness the mooring over a video link.
Ansari's husband, Hamid, said "all of us feel proud, excited and happy." He congratulated his wife and her crewmates over a radio link with the station.
"Now we all need to know how to get there," Hamid told Anousheh.
"I'm working on it," Anousheh replied. "It was a smooth ride."
She voiced similar sentiments in an e-mail posted on her Weblog:
"...The launch was very smooth. The trip to the station felt long but it was worth it. I cannot keep my eyes off the windows. Earth is magnificent and peaceful from up here. You don’t see any of those awful things you hear on the news, from up here.
"The Earth is so beautiful and if we could all see it this way I’m sure we would do everything in our power to preserve it. I truly hope that more and more people get to experience this trip first hand...."
Important source of funding
Ansari is the fourth private spaceflight participant to pay a reported $20 million for a space station visit. The paying passengers have become an important source of funding for Russia's space industry.
Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian-born billionaire who helped Microsoft create Word and Excel, was to blast off for the station next spring, and a Malaysian astronaut will follow in the fall, said Alexei Krasnov, head of manned spaceflight for the Russian Federal Space Agency. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the MSNBC.com joint venture.)
Slideshow: Month in space: Future frontiers Krasnov hailed Ansari's courage and skills and added that in theory she could fly to the station again in 2008 — the time when she had initially been scheduled to make the journey. Ansari was added to the current crew roster just last month after Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto failed a medical test.
Ansari, Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria blasted off for the station in the TMA-9 capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday. The three are joining German astronaut Thomas Reiter and the two outgoing crew members, Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeff Williams, who are due to return to Earth with Ansari on Sept. 29.
During the six-month tenure of Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria, four spacewalks are planned, with as many as three to be conducted in January to help set up the station's permanent cooling system. Another will take place earlier to retrieve and install experiments on the station's exterior.
Station problem downplayed
Krasnov played down Monday's problem with the station's Russian-made Elektron oxygen generator that overheated, spreading a burned-rubber smell and leaking potassium hydroxide, a compound that is used to power batteries. NASA said the leak was not life-threatening, and the crew quickly cleaned up the spill.
Krasnov said Wednesday that the crew had enough spares to fix the machine and plenty of oxygen canisters as an alternative supply source. "Elektron is just one of three oxygen-generating systems on the station," he said.
Nikolai Sevastianov, head of the Russian rocket company Energia, said the problem with the oxygen generator had been resolved. "Now the system is working nominally, and we do not foresee any more problems," Sevastianov told reporters.
Women in space
Ansari is not the first woman to fly to the space station but Russian news media are paying her the kind of attention usually reserved for starlets, including information on her wardrobe.
"For Anousheh, we prepared a week's supply of white women's underpants of cambric cotton and several undershirts and also some other women's accessories," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Alexander Yarov, director of the Kentavr-Nauka company that makes clothing for cosmonauts, as saying.
The report said that Ansari was not allowed to take along makeup "but in the opinion of her men colleagues, even without decorative cosmetics she is very attractive and photogenic."
Russian politicians have even pressed space officials to make room aboard a future Soyuz craft for the singer Madonna, after she voiced interest in spaceflight during a concert-tour stop in Moscow. "It was mostly a joke, but there's a grain of seriousness to it," Krasnov said.
He said the politicians were not authorized to speak on Madonna's behalf, but "when a truly authorized person addresses this, we will have to respond."
This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Alan Boyle.
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