NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman (left), Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev (middle), and European astronaut Paolo Nespoli (right), pose inside their Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft at the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli are set to fly to the International Space Station on Dec. 15 to begin a long-duration mission aboard the orbiting laboratory.
updated 12/17/2010 3:27:48 PM ET 2010-12-17T20:27:48

The International Space Station has three new tenants.

A Russian Soyuz capsule docked with the orbiting lab Friday, two days after blasting off from Kazakhstan. It delivered an American, an Italian and a Russian for a five-month stay.

The docking took place 220 miles above west Africa, just as NASA was wrapping up a fueling test of space shuttle Discovery on its Florida launch pad. Discovery should have flown to the space station in November, but is grounded until February because of fuel tank cracks.

The newest space station residents are Catherine Coleman, Paolo Nespoli and Dmitry Kondratyev. Two Russians and one American already are on board, for a total crew of six.

The trio launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, before spending two days chasing down the station and entering its orbit.

Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will join the space station's existing Expedition 26 crew station commander Scott Kelly of NASA and flight engineers Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka of Russia, who have been living at the station since early October.

The incoming crew is poised to begin a five-month stay in space, during which Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will conduct a variety of research experiments and educational outreach. They will also oversee the arrival of two unmanned cargo supply vessels the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV).

Additionally, the station crew will play host to two upcoming space shuttle visits in the new year. The STS-133 flight of the shuttle Discovery is targeted to launch in February 2011, and the subsequent STS-134 flight of Endeavour is pegged for April.

Both flights will be the last missions for the respective orbiters before NASA retires its space shuttle fleet next year. After the shuttle program's retirement, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be the only link for humans to fly to space until an American commercial vehicle is available.

During their months-long stay onboard the station, Coleman and Nespoli will perform duties as flight engineers. Kondratyev will begin his mission as a flight engineer as well, but will take over as the space station commander for Expedition 27.

The six-person Expedition 26 crew will spend about three months together before Kelly hands over command of the station to Kondratyev. Kelly, Kaleri and Skripochka are set to return to Earth in mid-March, while Coleman, Kondratyev and Nespoli will remain on the station until May.

You can follow Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter@denisechow.

Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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