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Discovery docks with Alpha

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- Astronauts aboard U.S. space shuttle Discovery docked with the orbiting Alpha international space station Sunday afternoon, bringing supplies and a fresh crew for the outpost.

Discovery and Alpha linked up as scheduled Sunday, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) over northwest Australia. The station's new crew -- U.S. astronaut and new station commander Frank Culbertson and Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin -- will move in Monday and expect to call Alpha their home until December.

They are replacing the current crew of station commander and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachev and U.S. astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms, who have been living on Alpha since March.

This is Culbertson's first space flight in eight years. He put his flying career on hold to work behind a desk as a space station manager.

Watch the space shuttle Discovery lift off toward space station Alpha (August 10)

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On Saturday, shuttle commander Scott Horowitz, pilot Rick Sturckow and mission specialists Patrick Forrester and Daniel Barry performed a series of routine activities in preparation for the docking, including testing Discovery's robotic arm and checking out spacesuits to be used during two spacewalks planned for later this week.

Discovery is carrying up a spare command-and-control computer, along with other gear and food and clothes for the new crew.

Shuttle making important furniture delivery

The shuttle also will deliver a bedroom suite that will be installed in the orbiting outpost's Destiny science laboratory. Currently, there are sleeping quarters for only two Alpha inhabitants. The third must settle for a makeshift bunk in Destiny.

That the sleeping cabin will wind up in a vacant section of the $1.4 billion lab is perhaps fitting, considering that looming budget cuts have placed much of the ambitious scientific agenda planned for the station into a slumbering limbo.

New Alpha crewmembers Mikhail Tyurin, left, Frank Culbertson, center, and Vladimir Dezhurov  

Experiments on the U.S.-built Destiny module were to be the primary purpose for the space station, but $4 billion in construction cost overruns have prompted congressional lawmakers to consider scaling back NASA's budget for the station by $1 billion over the next four years.

A habitation module and emergency escape capsule have already become victims of the shrinking NASA coffers. The loss of the two planned additions means that Alpha will house three residents for some time, rather than seven as expected.

The small staff will have little time to devote to experiments, considering the demands of keeping the modular complex in working order.

Germs in space

Despite the challenges, NASA remains upbeat about the future of science on Alpha. Discovery will bring about 20 U.S. and Russian experiments to the station, doubling the current number.

Among the tests on tap is the first experiment to be mounted to the exterior of the station. More than 1,500 materials samples will remain outside, enduring punishing levels of solar radiation with no protection.

"The kind of things we're looking at, for example, are materials that provide radiation shielding that would be used on space missions, including manned ones to Mars," said William Kinard, a NASA scientist at the Langley Research Center managing the experiments.

Current Alpha crewmembers Susan Helms, left, Yuri Usachev, center, and Jim Voss  

The hapless subjects include plastics, mirrors, composites and living specimens like seeds, spores and bacteria. They are being checked for their space worthiness to better prepare for future explorations in space.

What kind of risk do the microbes pose to the space travelers?

"None whatsoever. The biological specimens are sealed with multiple seals inside containers. And the viruses that are being flown present absolutely no hazard to the crew," Kinard said.

Few visitors for new Alpha crew

While the current Alpha residents have greeted many visiting astronauts and cosmonauts -- and even space tourist Dennis Tito -- the new trio expects only one visit during their four-month stay, a Russian Soyuz crew that will deliver a fresh escape capsule.

The three-person Soyuz lifeboats must be replaced every six months. The visiting cosmonauts will return in the one now docked to the station.

The shuttle is scheduled to return to Florida on August 22, bringing Usachev, Helms and Voss back to Earth.

Space station Alpha, a partnership of the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan, could cost in excess of $95 billion when completed later this decade

• NASA Human Spaceflight
• The Space Shuttle Clickable Map
• Oceanography from the Space Shuttle
• NASA Space Shuttle Virtual Tour
• Boeing: Space Shuttle Homepage
• Earth from Space

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