The six astronauts working and living on the International Space Station are getting ready to welcome three new crew mates early Thursday morning.
NASA's Rick Mastracchio, along with Russia's Mikhail Tyurin and Japan's Koichi Wakata are undergoing final preparations for their scheduled liftoff onboard a Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:14 p.m. ET tonight.
After four orbits and a six-hour flight to catch up with the space station, the spacecraft is expected to dock to the Rassvet module on the orbiter early Thursday.
The new crewmates are bringing something special with them -- the Olympic torch that will light the flame at the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
On Saturday, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy are set to carry the torch outside the space station on a spacewalk.
Then on Sunday, the torch will return to Earth in the Soyuz spacecraft along with three crew members - NASA's Karen Nyberg, Luca Parmitano with the European space agency, and Russia's Fyodor Yurchikhin.
Trips to the space station have become much faster in recent months. In March, a Soyuz spacecraft made a record-breaking six-hour journey from Earth to the space station.
Historically, it has taken NASA's space shuttle fleet, as well as Russian Soyuz spacecraft, two days from launch to rendezvous with the space station. The faster journey uses new techniques that were tested in three earlier unpiloted Russian cargo spacecrafts.
Since that first record-breaking flight, Soyuz trips have taken about six hours, not only getting the crew to the orbiter quicker but using less fuel on the way.
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