Soyuz TMA-19 docks with space station

Completing a two-day orbital rendezvous, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying a veteran cosmonaut and two NASA astronauts docked with the International Space Station's aft port Thursday, boosting the lab's crew back to six.

Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, assisted by NASA flight engineer Shannon Walker, monitored an automated approach to the Zvezda command module's aft port, docking at 6:21 p.m. EDT as the station complex sailed 220 miles above the south Atlantic Ocean just east of Argentina.

"We are in alignment, right in the center," Yurchikhin radioed as the spacecraft closed in. "We are in alignment ... contact, mechanical capture."

The view from the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft during final approach
to the International Space Station.
(Photo: NASA TV)
Hooks and latches then engaged, pulling the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft snugly into place. Hatches were opened at 8:52 p.m. and after waiting for a solid satellite link, Yurchikhin, Walker and Douglas Wheelock were welcomed aboard by Expedition 24 commander Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who were launched to the station April 2. This is the first time a long-duration station crew has included two women.

"I want to congratulate you for a picture-perfect rendezvous and docking," former shuttle commander Michael Coats, director of the Johnson Space Center, radioed from Moscow. "It's delightful to see the space station fully manned again, with a six-person crew. I want you to enjoy your time up there. ... But don't waste a whole lot of time, we need you to get to work in the world's finest laboratory!

"I'm sitting next to Shannon's mother, Sherry," he continued. "And I promised her, Shannon, that you would get plenty of exercise, eat right and get to bed at a reasonable time."

Sherry Walker then took the phone and told her daughter "I hope you had a great flight up there and it was everything you thought it was going to be. I can see the big grin on your face, so I know you're having a good time."

Astronauts Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Shannon Walker embrace
in the Zvezda command module behind Fyodor Yurchikhin.
(Photo: NASA TV)
Shuttle veteran Catherine Coleman, scheduled for launch to the station later this year, asked Walker and Wheelock to describe takeoff aboard the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft.

"I don't think there's any way to easily describe what ascent is like," replied Walker, who is making her first space flight. "It is totally amazing. This giant beast comes to life and shoves you skyward and it's noisy and shaky but wonderful at the same time."

Wheelock, a shuttle veteran, said in the moments before liftoff, "you can feel things happening underneath you and hear mechanical things going on and so the last few minutes leading up to launch (are) quite exciting and quite dynamic. You know something's happening."

"And then when it lights off, of course, it's sort of centerline thrust and you're sitting right on the center you just feel that kick in the pants," he said. "The second to third stage is pretty dramatic."

Earlier, Bill Gerstenmaier, director of space operations at NASA headquarters said "it is great to see all you guys together in space, all six of you."

"You'll have an awesome expedition, plenty of good work in front of you, enjoy your time, enjoy your friendship, the time will go by fast," he said. "But make sure you enjoy yourself. Good work, and have a good time."

Flight controllers, meanwhile, are monitoring no less than four pieces of orbital debris that have a chance to pass relatively close to the space station over the next few days. One piece from a Russian rocket body was expected to make its closest approach, known as a conjunction, around 2:19 a.m. Friday, but it was not considered a threat to the station.

The Expedition 24 crew fields questions from Moscow after
the Soyuz TMA-19 docking.
(Photo: NASA TV)
Three other pieces of debris are expected to pass by the station early Sunday.

"All conjunctions will be re-evaluated ... as soon as perturbations to the ISS orbit from the 23S docking activities have been tracked out," according to a NASA space station status report. "If a DAM (Debris Avoidance Maneuver) is necessary for any of these objects, it would be performed using Progress 37P mid-ring thrusters (docked at DC-1 nadir). The effects of such a maneuver on the other conjunctions will be analyzed as necessary, with appropriate action taken."

Yurchikhin, Walker and Wheelock, who plan to spend 164 days in space, are replacing Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov, Timothy Creamer and Soichi Noguchi, who returned to Earth two weeks ago aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft after five-and-a-half months in space.

The new additions, in turn, will form the core of the Expedition 25 crew when Skvortsov, Kornienko and Caldwell Dyson depart in late September.

Following standard procedures, the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft docked at the Zvezda module's aft port Thursday using an automated rendezvous and navigation system. On June 28, Yurchikhin, Walker and Wheelock will strap in and move the spacecraft to the newly installed MRM-1 docking module attached to the Earth-facing side of the central Zarya propulsion and storage module.

The MRM-1, known as Rassvet, is not yet equipped with auto-rendezvous equipment and the fly-over at the end of the month will be carried out in manual mode. The rendezvous equipment will be configured during a spacewalk July 26 by Yurchikhin and Kornienko.