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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 05:29 GMT 06:29 UK
Russians dock with space station
International Space Station
The space station has been feeling the pinch since Nasa flights were grounded
A Russian rocket has delivered a new three-man crew to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Soyuz spacecraft docked with the ISS on Wednesday, after a two-day flight from Kazakhstan.

The crew are American Michael Fincke, Russian Gennady Padalka and Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands.

It is the third manned mission to the ISS since US shuttle flights were halted in the wake of the Columbia disaster on 1 February 2003.

Since then, Russian rockets have provided the only means for crews to travel to the space station.

Financial wrangling

The Soyuz TMA-4, working on autopilot, docked just ahead of schedule at 0501 GMT. "We have contact," the duty operator at the mission control centre at Korolyov, outside Moscow, said. The audience at the centre then burst into applause.

Fred Gregory, deputy administrator of the US space agency (Nasa) said:

"I would like to thank the Russian space agency for again providing an excellent launch, an excellent ride and an excellent docking as we continue this great friendship and journey together. We appreciate everything that has been done."

The Americans have turned down a request from the Russians to extend the length of tours to the ISS.

The Russians would like astronauts and cosmonauts to spend a year aboard the orbital platform rather than the six months they currently serve. Moscow says this would save considerable sums of money and free up seats on Soyuz capsules for fare-paying tourists - an important source of revenue.

The head of the company that builds Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft said longer flights had to come.

"Our position is rigid: the next crew must make a long flight. I would urge the American colleagues not to drag their feet on solving this issue," said Yuri Semyonov, director of the Energiya company.

"We are ready for long flights. Our equipment is ready for that. Our partners must listen to their Russian colleagues."

Next March

While the US recognises the need to extend spaceflights to learn how astronauts could survive long journeys, such as to Mars, it believes it would be premature to extend ISS tours right now.

"We would like to delay any further discussions on this until [the space shuttles] return to flight, which would be scheduled for next March, when we can assure that all the operating systems, life support systems, are operating," Gregory said.

"We are also discussing the biological activities that need to be accomplished for us to do the longer mission."

The new crew, called Expedition 9, will have a week of handover activities with the current Expedition 8 crew.

The latter, made up of US astronaut Michael Foale and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, will then return to Earth with Mr Kuipers.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford
"It was a text-book docking"

Astronauts may get time extension
11 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
Cargo ship reaches space station
31 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature
Shuttle clouds station's future
21 Jan 04  |  Science/Nature
Space station crew back on Earth
28 Oct 03  |  Science/Nature

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