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updated 4/5/2006 7:03:01 PM ET 2006-04-05T23:03:01

Space station commander Bill McArthur said Wednesday that he is looking forward to a steaming cup of coffee on Earth now that he and four other astronauts have passed the midpoint of a week-long orbital crew swap.

“The very next thing I’d like to do is smell a cup of coffee,” McArthur told the Associated Press Wednesday during video link broadcast on NASA TV, adding that he hopes to see his family first. “It’s just an absolute thrill and joy to live and work in space, but we miss the richness, the texture, the three-dimensional nature of living on our home planet.”

McArthur has lived aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev for six months during their Expedition 12 mission. The two astronauts will hand control of the ISS over the Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams – who arrived early April 1 with Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes – before returning to Earth with Pontes on April 8.

“It’s a lot like if you were to buy a new house and you’re moving in ... except in this case the former owners are still there and they’re still living in it, their closets are all full and they’re not going to clean it up,” Williams told the Houston Chronicle of the handover process Wednesday. “It never occurred to me how difficult that would be to move in to somebody’s house with all their stuff in it and then pick up without a pause in the normal day-to-day operations.”

Airlock campout details
McArthur and Williams, both NASA astronauts, spent a portion of Monday night sealed inside the space station’s U.S.-built Quest airlock during a test of spacewalk preparation procedures to flush nitrogen from the human body. The measure, in which astronauts sleep at a lower atmospheric pressure than that inside the rest of the ISS, could shave up to one hour off the typical time it takes astronauts to prepare for U.S. spacewalks, but the Monday night test was cut short due to a pair of apparently erroneous alarms, NASA said.

“We were never in any danger,” McArthur said of the airlock campout. “There was never any problem with the [airlock’s] atmosphere.”

A software glitch led to two inadvertent alarms, the second of which awoke the two NASA astronauts and prompted NASA ISS flight controllers to call off the overnight airlock test, NASA said.

“They were worried about us getting a good night’s sleep,” McArthur said.

NASA officials said Wednesday that the three primary goals of the airlock campout were met, despite the abbreviated test. Those goals included checking the performance of an atmosphere-watching device called a mass constituency analyzer during a rapid sampling phase as the airlock depressurized, an auto-sequence mode to check the environments of multiple ISS modules – including the Quest airlock – and the collection of data on the actual campout process itself.

Flight controllers are now looking through that data to determine whether another campout test will be required before the process is used in earnest during NASA’s upcoming STS-115 shuttle mission – slated to fly no earlier than late August – to install new solar arrays outside the station, the space agency said.

Robotic arm training
The Expedition 12 and Expedition 13 astronauts spent part of Wednesday training with the space station’s robotic arm, while Tokarev used the day to pack the Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft that will return him, McArthur and Pontes to Earth.

Earlier, McArthur and Tokarev tested the satellite phone they will use after landing Saturday on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The two astronauts are also familiarizing their Expedition 13 counterparts with the location of items in the space station’s numerous compartments.

“Jeff and Pavel are definitely ready to take over,” McArthur said of the Expedition 13 crew, which is beginning its own six-month mission.

As the joint space station crews continue their handover activities, Pontes – Brazil’s first astronaut – is engaged in a full schedule of science experiments and video conferences.

Pontes, who carried Brazil’s national flag, stamps, coins and other objects from his native country into orbit, was expected to speak with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva today via a space-to-ground video link, according to the Brazilian Space Agency. He is also expected to speak to a group of 250 children and Brazilian journalists during a pair of planned video conferences later this week, officials said.

Pontes is spending 10 days in space — eight of them aboard the ISS — and will return to Earth with the Expedition 12 crew at 7:46 p.m. EST (2346 GMT) on April 8.

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