MOSCOW (AP) – A Soyuz spacecraft carrying two Russians and an American rocketed closer Friday to its docking with the international space station, where the current three-man crew made final departure preparations.

The Soyuz TMA-5, carrying Salizhan Sharipov and Yuri Shargin and Leroy Chiao, was set to dock with the station today at 8:17 a.m. Moscow time (12:17 a.m. EDT), just over 49 hours after lifting off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday.

It is the fourth time a Soyuz is filling in for U.S. space shuttle flights, suspended since the Columbia burned up on re-entry in February 2003.

Soyuz spacecraft are guided by autopilot on their approach to the station and during the docking, but the crew is trained to operate the capsule manually in case of computer failure.

In a rare rupture with a tradition of having at least one crewman with previous experience in piloting the capsule, none of the astronauts aboard the Soyuz have flown it before. But space officials have downplayed the lack of experience, saying the crew has undergone sufficient training.

Sharipov and Chiao are to replace Russian Gennady Padalka and American Mike Fincke, who are ending a six-month mission on the orbiting station. Padalka and Fincke will return to Earth with Shargin on Oct. 24.

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