They're just coming and going at the busy International Space Station (ISS). As the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely today at Cape Canaveral, following their recent visit to the technology hotspot, the crew of Russia's Soyuz TMA-9 pulled up to sign in, relieving an ISS crew ready to return home in their TMA-8.
Normally, the space station is a quiet place, usually the temporary residence of about three cosmonauts or astronauts (it housed only two lonely orbiters for a few years after the tragic Space Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003). This month, however, 12 transient visitors have passed through its door—and it's an international set of jet-setters. Today, American space tourist Anousheh Ansari, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, and American astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria docked at the station and floated into its cozy, weightless confines. They joined German astronaut Thomas Reiter, who is staying on, and Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and American astronaut Jeff Williams, who (in the famous words of Woody Allen) are "due back on the planet Earth" on 29 September, in the same Soyuz vehicle.
Ansari (famous for the Ansari X Prize) is an Iranian-born woman who made a fortune in the telecom industry in the United States. She paid US $20 million to the Russian Space Agency for the weeklong stay, whereupon she'll join Vinogradov and Williams on the ride home. They will leave one German, one Russian, and one American behind on a space station that is certainly living up to the word international in its marquee.
Earlier in the day, Atlantis made a flawless landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, after a 12-day mission to install a new solar-panel wing to the ISS. The crew consisted of U.S astronauts Brent Jett, Chris Ferguson Joe Tanner, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Dan Burbank, and Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean. Mission Commander Jett summarized things by saying: "It was a pretty tough few days for us, a lot of hard work, a great team effort to get the station assembly restarted on a good note."
Meanwhile, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden, on-hand for the Soyuz mission, said of the equally flawless ascent of the spacecraft to the ISS: "Somehow our Russian friends and partners are able to make these operations look routine, but those of us in the space business know that these matters are not routine and in fact very difficult, and so it's a testament to their skills that they can make it appear to be routine."
It's praise well deserved—for all concerned. Good luck and good flying to all the visitors of the most popular home away from home in all of outer space.