Korolyov, Russia After a two-day journey and a flawless docking, an American and two Russians took up residence Thursday in the international space station 230 miles above the Earth, beginning a four-month stay that is expected to lead to a permanent human presence in the heavens.
The three temporarily christened the outpost "Space Station Alpha."
The Expedition One crew took off Tuesday on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in the desert of Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. The capsule docked three minutes ahead of time Thursday at 12:21 p.m. Moscow time (3:21 a.m. CST), while the space station was over Kazakhstan. About an hour later, the crew cracked the hatch and moved into the station.
The name Alpha, which the triumphant crew virtually forced on NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, will serve as the station's call sign until the initial inhabitants return home in February, though it could become permanent.
Hundreds of flight controllers and international space dignitaries watched from the Korolyov Mission Control Center outside Moscow as American William Shepherd and Russians Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev crawled into the hatch of the space station's living quarters.
The linkup, which some veteran space officials compared to the first moonwalk three decades earlier, opened a new era in space exploration that could lead to the colonization of space within 20 years. Rotating crews will remain aboard the station for at least 15 years, conducting research that Goldin said will enable space travelers to venture to Mars and other outposts.
"It's a great moment for all us. ... We're sure enjoying it up here," Shepherd, the mission commander, said as a grainy telecast showed the crew members in the station's main module, Zvezda (Russian for "star"), wearing blue jumpsuits over white jerseys. Shepherd reported that the crew accepted the ground command "to make this station come alive."
The first task was simply to turn on the lights. In the first weeks, the crew will unpack and activate life-support systems, setting up the laptop control system, office equipment and electrical gear. Two U.S. shuttle crews will bring other integral components, including the laboratory Destiny, which will serve as the main research arm for experiments in biotechnology, fluid physics, combustion and life sciences.
Russia's space program has fallen into disarray, operating at one-tenth the funding of NASA's program, after racking up a series of firsts at the outset of space exploration four decades ago, including the first man into space in 1961.