Three astronauts reached the International Space
Station in record time Friday after making the trip from Earth in
less than six hours rather than the usual two days.
Russians Alexander Misurkin and Pavel Vinogradov and US astronaut Chris Cassidy received a zero-gravity welcome on the ISS, from three crew already there.
The three newcomers embraced the crew already onboard - Canadian Chris Hadfield, Thomas Marshburn of the United States and Russian Roman Romanenko.
Then all of them joined in a live video chat from 410 kilometres above Earth with family and space officials.
The Soyuz rocket and capsule had blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2043 GMT and docked with the ISS at 0229 GMT, two minutes ahead of schedule.
It now has an onboard computer that can operate without constant connection to the control station near Moscow.
This allows it to make more precise manoeuvres and line up with the ISS after just four Earth orbits, down from around 34.
The launch followed three successful flights by unmanned capsules on the six-hour "express route" since August.
The shorter route should reduce crew fatigue, Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, was quoted as saying by news agency Itar-Tass.
"We will surely make another flight on the faster route," he said. "Then we will closely examine the biological metrics of the crew and decide whether to make it the standard route."
Russia has been the only country that can carry people into space and back since the end of the US space shuttle programme in July 2011.
The three astronauts already on the station are due to return in May.
Misurkin, Vinogradov and Cassidy, all of whom have been in space before, will remain in orbit for nearly six months, with plans for several spacewalks and about 40 experiments.
Vinogradov, who turns 60 aboard the ISS on August 31, is the oldest Russian to travel to space.
The record holder is John Glenn, the first US astronaut to orbit Earth in 1962, who returned to space in 1998 at age 77.
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