New crew joins ISS after record express voyage

A new Russian-American crew arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) Friday after an express trip from Earth of under six hours, the fastest ever manned journey to the orbiting laboratory.

A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts opened the hatches of their Soyuz-TMA spaceship and floated into the ISS to a warm welcome from the three incumbent crew, live pictures broadcast on Russian television showed.

Russia's Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin and American Chris Cassidy are now expected to spend the next five months aboard the station after a hitch-free launch and docking.

Their record-breaking trip from blast-off at Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to docking with the ISS lasted less than six hours, slashing the travel time for arriving at the station.

Previously, trips to the ISS had taken over two full days as spaceships orbited the Earth 30 times before docking with the space station.

However, under a new technique now employed by the Russian space agency, the Soyuz capsule this time only orbited Earth four times before docking.

After blast-off at 2043 GMT Thursday, the Soyuz capsule docked with the ISS at 0228 GMT with the hatches opening just over two hours later.

The quick journey -- dubbed by NASA's official television commentator as a "chase into space" -- has been made possible by launching the Soyuz just after the ISS passes overhead in orbit.

After reaching orbit, the Soyuz capsule then had just over 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) to make up to catch up with the ISS, which the Soyuz achieved with newly-improved thrusters and manoeuvring.

The manned "express" flight comes after Russia successfully sent three unmanned Progress supply capsules in August, October and February to the station via the short six hour route rather than two days.

The successful fast-track voyage is a huge boost for the embattled Russian space programme, whose reputation has been battered by several failed satellite launches in the last year.

However, there have been no problems to date with the manned spaceflight programme.

After the retirement of the US space shuttle, Russia is now the sole nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS.

Ahead of the launch, the crew expressed satisfaction with the new fast-track schedule, including Vinogradov who at 59 is one of Russia's most experienced cosmonauts.

Vinogradov, who spent 197 days on board Russia's now defunct Mir space station in 1997-1998 and also flew to the ISS in 2006, said the shortened flight time has several advantages for the crew.

Firstly, as the crew only start to experience the tough effects of weightlessness after 4-5 hours of flight they will be in better shape when they arrive at the station for the docking procedure.

"During the initial time the crew feels completely normal and works normally," he said at the pre-flight news conference at Baikonur.

Also, the reduced time means that the Soyuz capsule will be able to deliver biological materials for experiments aboard the ISS in time before they spoil, something that would not have been possible with a two day trip.

"With such a short time the crew could even take an ice cream -- it would not be able to melt," said Vinogradov.

On board the three spacemen are joining incumbent crew Chris Hadfield of Canada, Tom Marshburn of NASA and Russia's Roman Romanenko.

Hadfield has over the last months built up a huge following online with colourful tweets from space and spectacular pictures of the Earth below.

"They're docked! I was right at the hatch, heard/felt the metal sliding, heavy thump, then Soyuz pulling to check latched. So very cool," he said on Twitter.

Cassidy is a veteran of US special forces who has served in Afghanistan and recorded a 15-day mission to the ISS aboard the shuttle in 2009. Misurkin is making his first space flight.