March 29, 2013 at 3:27 AM ET
A NASA astronaut and his two Russian crewmates made the fastest-ever trip to the International Space Station on Thursday, arriving less than six hours after launch.
In the past, it's taken two days for Soyuz spaceships to make the trip from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But mission planners worked out a more efficient procedure that made it possible for the Soyuz to catch up with the station in just four orbits, compared with more than 30 orbits under the previous flight plan.
Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin, along with NASA's Chris Cassidy, rocketed into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:43 p.m. ET Thursday (2:43 a.m. Friday local time). "The spacecraft is nominal, we feel great," Vinogradov, the spacecraft's commander, reported as the rocket ascended to orbit.
NASA launch commentator Josh Byerly hailed Thursday's flight, saying that the crew was "on the fast track" to the station.
The six-hour trip lasted roughly as long as an airplane flight from Seattle to Miami. NASA officials say the fast-rendezvous procedure minimizes the time that crew members spend in the Soyuz's close quarters and gets them to the much roomier space station in better shape. The down side is that the three spacefliers had to spend most of the trip sitting elbow to elbow in bulky spacesuits — which might strike a familiar chord for Seattle-to-Miami fliers.
The fast-track technique relies on a complicated round of orbital choreography that was tested three times over the past eight months, using unmanned Russian Progress cargo ships.
Last week, the space station raised its orbit by about a mile and a half (2.5 kilometers) to put it in the correct position for intercepting the Soyuz. The Soyuz had to be launched at just the right moment, to get into just the right orbit at just the right distance behind the station. To catch up with the station at the right time, the Soyuz had to execute a precisely timed series of thruster firings — a task that was made easier by an upgrade to the spacecraft's automated navigation system.
"From a technical point of view, we feel pretty comfortable with this," Cassidy said at a pre-launch news briefing. "All of the procedures are very similar to what we do in a two-day process, and we've trained it a number of times."
Despite all the training, there were some nail-biting moments. At one point during the Soyuz's approach, a Russian mission controller told Vinogradov, "You really need to stay calm and cool." Vinogradov followed through on the advice, guiding the Soyuz to its targeted position at 10:28 p.m. ET.
Two hours after docking, the hatches between the two spacecraft were opened, and the Soyuz trio floated through to greet three other spacefliers who have been living aboard the station since December: Canadian commander Chris Hadfield, NASA's Tom Marshburn and Russia's Roman Romanenko.
"Hey, is anyone home?" Vinogradov joked. The new arrivals received a round of hugs and congratulations, exchanged warm words with loved ones back on Earth via the station's communication link, and finally settled down for rest at the end of a long, long day.
Vinogradov has been on two previous long-duration space missions — to Russia's Mir space station in 1997-1998, and to the International Space Station in 2006. Cassidy, a Navy SEAL, has been to the station once before, during a mission on the shuttle Endeavour in 2009. This is the first spaceflight for Misurkin.
The new crew members will spend five and a half months aboard the orbital outpost. They'll take part in station upkeep as well as scores of scientific experiments. Up to seven spacewalks are planned during their stay, with the first one coming up next month. The next changing of the guard comes in mid-May, when Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko are due to return to Earth.
More about the Soyuz trip:
This report includes information from The Associated Press.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.