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Soyuz craft docks, boosts space station crew

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station Tuesday after a smooth, automated approach, boosting the lab's crew back up to five.

A veteran Russian cosmonaut, a Japanese shuttle flier, and a NASA astronaut making his first space flight docked with the International Space Station Tuesday after a two-day orbital chase, donning Santa hats to mark the holiday season.

With Commander Oleg Kotov monitoring a problem-free automated approach to the huge lab complex, the Russian Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft docked at an Earth-facing port on the Russian Zarya module at 5:48 p.m. EST, as the two spacecraft sailed 220 miles above the Atlantic Ocean east of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov, left, chats with family members after docking with the International Space Station. Timothy Creamer and Soichi Noguchi look on to his left, while Maxim Suraev and station Commander Jeff Williams float in the foreground. NASA TV

Hatches were opened about an hour and a half later, after leak checks to make sure the Soyuz was firmly latched in place.

Expedition 22 Commander Jeffrey Williams and cosmonaut Maxim Suraev were standing by to welcome Kotov and his two crewmates--Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and NASA astronaut Timothy Creamer--on board to boost the lab's complement back up to five.

"It's great to see all you guys on orbit," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of space operations, radioed from the Russian mission control center near Moscow. "Have a great Christmas, a good New Year. I can't think of a better family to have in space than you. I'm here with your families in the control center, so have a great expedition."

"Thank you, Gerst, it's good to hear your voice, it's great to have these guys on board," Williams replied. "It completes the complement of Expedition 22."

"Oleg, hello, we're so happy to see you aboard the station one more time," a family member radioed Kotov. "Daddy, I'm so proud of you. You're the best father in the world! We wish you the best of luck."

The Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft slowly approaches its docking port on the International Space Station after an automated approach. NASA TV

"Thanks to you for coming, thank you for your words, I love you very much and I'll talk to you soon," Kotov replied.

Said Creamer: "Everything's doing really great here. It's better than great, it's 154 times better than great. So thanks for the well wishes."

Williams and Suraev have had the station to themselves since December 1 when cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne, and Canadian Robert Thirsk returned to Earth after a six-month stay in space.

Kotov, Creamer, and Noguchi plan to remain aboard the lab complex for a six-month tour of duty. Williams and Suraev will return to Earth in late March, but three more crew members are scheduled for launch in early April to boost the crew to six.