The Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft carrying cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, NASA flight engineer Jeffrey Williams, and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté maneuvered to a smooth docking with the International Space Station early Friday to close out a two-day orbital chase.
With Suraev and Williams closely monitoring the final stages of the automated rendezvous, the small capsule's docking mechanism engaged its counterpart at the aft port of the Zvezda command module at 4:35 a.m. EDT as the two spacecraft sailed high above northeast Kazakhstan. Hooks and latches then engaged to pull the Soyuz firmly into place.
After leak checks, hatches between the two spacecraft were opened at 6:57 a.m., allowing Suraev, Williams and Laliberté, wearing a red clown nose, to float into the space station.
They were welcomed aboard by outgoing commander Gennady Padalka, NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt, cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, and NASA astronaut Nicole Stott.
"It's good to see you all, looking very good," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called from mission control near Moscow.
"Hello Charlie, yeah, we had a great trip up here and we're happy to be on board, with good company," Williams replied.
"Well Jeff, Max and Guy, just want to let you all know we enjoyed a superb launch" on Wednesday, Bolden said. "Your families behaved well, they laughed all the way back from Baikonur to Moscow. You all should rest well and know they're being taken care of."
Suraev's father then congratulated his son on his first spaceflight, saying "all of us here are very happy that so far the mission is very successful...All the best to you, son, please do a good job there."
Laliberté, once again putting on his clown nose, told his family he was enjoying the trip and feeling "pretty good, actually. I'm adapting pretty good." Then he joked, "But I am staying six months, though."
A Canadian worth an estimated $2.5 billion, Laliberté is believed to have paid the Russians around $35 million to visit the space station as a tourist.
Suraev and Williams are replacing Padalka and Barratt, who plan to return to Earth with Laliberté on October 11. De Winne will take over as European Space Agency first commander in Padalka's place.
"We've had a fabulous time up here, the station is in great shape and really well supplied," Barratt said. "We're just really impressed that everything has worked so far with a couple of shuttles, the (Japanese) HTV (cargo ship), and everything worked on that thing. It was a beautiful spaceship and we're really lucky to have such visitations up here and a lot of firsts. So we're ready to come home, but it's been a great time."
"You guys enjoy all your time together this week," Gerstenmaier said. "Take good care of (the) space station."