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Italian Delivery For Space Station

Cosmonauts and astronauts exchanged joyful embraces Sunday and began loading international space station with scientific equipment, personal belongings and fresh vegetables — not to mention worms and pregnant crickets — following the successful pre-dawn docking of a Soyuz cargo ship.

Among the supplies was "a little flavor of Italy" that Italian Roberto Vittori had said he was bringing to spice up the station's cuisine, along with worms and crickets for some of the myriad scientific experiments conducted aboard the station.

A little more than two hours after the 6:20 a.m. linkup, Russian Sergei Krikalev, American John Phillips and Vittori, who blasted off Friday from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, met face-to-face with the two men who have spent the past six months aboard the orbiting station.

After changing out of their space suits and into track suits bearing the insignia of their respective space agencies, the newcomers were greeted by cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov with the traditional Russian welcome offering of bread and salt.

"We are very happy to see the new crew arrive and we wish them an excellent mission," Sharipov said.

Sharipov and his crew mate, U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao, are scheduled to return to Earth on April 25, along with Vittori, who is representing the European Space Agency.

As dawn broke over Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, a dozen men in colorful Italian military uniforms gathered to mark Vittori's arrival at the station. An Italian flag was draped over a balcony overlooking the monitoring hall.

Engineers monitoring the docking via a video feed from the Soyuz TMA-6 spaceship broke into applause when they saw that the automatic docking system had worked flawlessly.

Daniel Sacotte, director of human spaceflight for the European Space Agency, said Vittori's presence on the mission was a great step forward for the agency.

"It shows that more and more, Europe is a key partner in the cooperation with the space station and the future of man in space," he said.

Later Sunday, the five men began unloading some of the 330 pounds of scientific equipment, documentation, personal belongings and fresh vegetables carried up on the Soyuz capsule.

About 70 percent of the experiments will be devoted to medical research, said Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov. Givi Gorgiladze of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the ITAR-TASS news agency that the worms will be used to study regeneration in a weightless environment, while pregnant crickets will be monitored for nerve cells formation.

One of Krikalev and Phillips' key tasks during their six-month mission will be to observe the condition of the U.S. space shuttle Discovery when it arrives in the first shuttle launch since the Columbia shuttle disaster on Feb. 1, 2003. The two will conduct a photo survey of the Discovery's insulating tiles as the shuttle maneuvers to dock.

Since the Columbia disaster, the Russian Soyuz capsule has been the only means of getting astronauts to the station. Russian cargo ships alone have delivered fresh supplies in the interim.

Fred Gregory, deputy administrator of the U.S. space agency NASA, said that the resumption of U.S. space shuttle flights was on schedule.

"The return to flight activities for the shuttle appears to be on time and we are very hopeful that we will be able to launch within the first window, in middle May or early June," Gregory said.