KOROLYOV, Russia (AP) – The space capsule carrying a new U.S.-Russian crew and the first paying female space tourist docked smoothly Wednesday at the international space station.

Officials at Russia’s Mission Control applauded as the ship carrying Iranian-born American telecommunications entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria hooked up with the orbiting station in a trouble-free automatic docking following a two-day journey.

“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,” said NASA associate administrator Rex Geveden, who was on hand to watch the docking with other U.S., Russian and European officials.

A couple of hours after the docking, the new crew floated into the space station, welcomed by its current residents, who treated them to a festive lunch.

Ansari, who smiled broadly, was clad in a bright yellow polo shirt and baseball cap. Her family and relatives of other astronauts were watching the linkup at Mission Control.

“All of us feel proud, excited and happy,” said Ansari’s husband, Hamid.

“I am very excited and happy for her,” echoed her sister, Atousa Raissyan. “I knew she was going to do it sooner or later. She has made her dream come true.”

Ansari is the fourth private astronaut to pay a reported $20 million for a space station visit.

The paying tourists have become an important source of funding for Russia’s space industry.

Alexei Krasnov, deputy head of Russian Federal Space Agency, said that Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian-born billionaire who helped Microsoft Corp. create Word and Excel, was to blast off for the station next spring, and a Malaysian astronaut will follow in the fall.

Krasnov hailed Ansari’s courage and skills, adding that in theory she could fly to the station again in 2008 – the time when she had initially been scheduled to make the journey. Ansari was added to the current crew roster just last month, after Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto failed a medical test.

Ansari, Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria blasted off Monday for the station in the TMA-9 capsule from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The three are joining German astronaut Thomas Reiter and the two outgoing crew members, Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeff Williams, who are due to return to Earth with Ansari on Sept. 29.

During the six-month tenure of Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria, four space walks are planned, with as many as three to be conducted in January to help set up the station’s permanent cooling system. Another will take place earlier to retrieve and install experiments on the station’s exterior.

Krasnov played down Monday’s problem with the station’s Russian-made Elektron oxygen generator that overheated, spreading a burned-rubber smell and leaking potassium hydroxide, a compound that is used to power batteries. NASA said the leak was not life-threatening, and the crew quickly cleaned up the spill.

Krasnov said the crew had enough spares to fix the machine and plenty of oxygen canisters as an alternative supply source. “Elektron is just one of three oxygen-generating systems on the station,” he said.

AP-ES-09-20-06 1542EDT

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