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CIS: Space station crew doubles to six for first time

By Stuart Williams
30 May 2009 3:21 AM

MOSCOW, May 29 AFP - Three new astronauts have boarded the International Space Station (ISS) from a Russian space capsule, doubling its permanent crew to six for the first time.

The Soyuz space capsule carrying astronauts from Canada, Belgium and Russia automatically docked with the ISS at 4.34pm Moscow time on Friday (2234 AEST), mission control in Korolyev outside Moscow said.

Belgian Frank De Winne, Canadian Robert Thirsk and Russian Roman Romanenko lifted off on Wednesday from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to spend the next six months in space.

Unlike in previous missions, the existing crew of Russian Gennady Padalka, American Michael Barratt and Japan's Koichi Wakata will stay on the station for the next months rather than returning immediately to Earth.

The capsule's hatches were opened in less than two hours after docking and the new astronauts floated into the ISS led by Thirsk, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

"Space station commander Gennady Padalka gave the new arrivals a security briefing and showed how to evacuate in an emergency situation," mission control spokesman Valery Lydin told ITAR-TASS.

De Winne will become the station's commander in October when Padalka returns to Earth, the first time for a Western European.

In a mission marked by a sequence of firsts, the docking also marked the first time all the partners in the station -- the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada -- will be represented at the same time on board.

The doubling of the crew size will allow the astronauts to make full use of the capacities of the ISS, which orbits 350 km above Earth and whose construction began over a decade ago.

The station has become a sophisticated platform for scientific experiments after the installation of a European laboratory last year and the arrival of a hi-tech Japanese lab, Kibo, which is now being completed.

The voyage marks a rise in the frequency of manned flights aboard the Soyuz, a Soviet-designed rocket that originated in the late 1960s.

Russia is stepping up the number of launches from two in previous years to four this year.

Soyuz rockets are set to become the sole means of reaching the ISS when the United States decommissions its space shuttles -- which have been plagued by safety troubles -- next year.

US space agency NASA and Russia's Roskosmos said on Thursday they had signed a deal worth $US306 million ($A390.3 million) for Russia to transport NASA astronauts to the ISS in 2012 and 2013.

The deal was a modification to NASA's existing contract with Roskosmos and covers the launch, training, landing and all support for six ISS crew members over that period.

"Space station crew members will launch on four Soyuz vehicles -- two in spring 2012 and two in fall 2012. Their landings are scheduled for fall 2012 and spring 2013," NASA said in a statement.

The deal and its value were also confirmed by the head of Roskosmos' manned spaceflight program, Alexei Krasnov, the Interfax news agency reported.