AP Aerospace Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The international space station just had a population boom.
A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying three new space station residents docked at the orbiting complex Friday. With three astronauts there to greet them, the space station now has a full staff of six for the first time in its 10-year history.
What's more, each of the major space station partners is represented on board for the first time. The combined crew, all men, now includes two Russians and one American, Japanese, Canadian and Belgian.
"There is so much potential in this beginning, in this historic milestone," Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency and a former astronaut, said at the Russian control center outside Moscow. It represents "what we will be able to achieve with future programs … and what we as a combined series of countries can do for the future exploration of space."
Having all these countries represented on board is "a great way to kick off a six-person crew," NASA's deputy space station program manager, Kirk Shireman, said on the eve of the linkup.
The Soyuz spacecraft blasted off from Kazakhstan on Wednesday. It pulled in at the space station as the two vessels soared 217 miles above the China coast.
When shuttle Endeavour and its crew of seven arrives in another few weeks, a record 13 people will be at the space station, but that will be only temporary.
Ever since the first space station crew arrived in 2000, two years after the first part was launched, no more than three people have lived up there at a time. The crew size dropped to two following the 2003 Columbia disaster because of the lengthy grounding of NASA's remaining space shuttles.
Those major supply runs will end when the shuttles are retired at the end of next year. NASA hopes to stockpile big spare parts at the space station before that happens; Endeavour, in fact, will carry up some on the next shuttle mission.
NASA also will have to rely on the Russian Space Agency to transport all its astronauts up and down, once shuttles are no longer flying.
The ride will cost $51 million per American astronaut. That's considerably more than the $35 million paid by the latest space tourist, Charles Simonyi, an American software entrepreneur who flew last month.
A NASA spokesman said Thursday that the space agency did not take part in the space tourist contract negotiations and therefore could not comment on the difference in price. But the spokesman, Kelly Humphries, noted that Soyuz seats purchased by NASA in 2008 were $47 million apiece and the newest price reflects general increases.
As for the next shuttle flight to the space station, Endeavour is scheduled to blast off June 13 with an American who will replace the Japanese on board, and the final components for the Japanese laboratory that's already up there. That mission, however, could be bumped into July. Stormy weather at NASA's launching site has delayed launch preparations.
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