A Russian cargo craft docked successfully at the international space station on Tuesday, bringing vital fuel and food to an outpost and crew suddenly cut off from a major supply line following the loss of the shuttle Columbia.
Maneuvering on autopilot, the unmanned Progress M-47 cargo ship moored itself to the station at 5:49 p.m. Moscow time (9:49 EST). It lifted off atop a Soyuz-U rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sunday.
Russian officials said the docking went smoothly.
The Progress brought about 2.75 tons of fuel as well as water, food and other supplies for U.S. astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin.
With U.S. shuttles grounded indefinitely after Saturday's Columbia disaster, the long-planned supply mission came as officials from the United States, Russia and other partners in the 16-nation space station project are discussing how to run the orbiting complex amid the break in supplies.
NASA plans had called for expanding the station during five shuttle flights this year, but they have been put on hold pending the investigation into the cause. Shuttles can carry payloads of 110 tons, while Russian Progress supply ships carry no more than 2.75 tons and usually less.
Shuttles have also helped maintain the station's orbit by firing their engines and delivered bulky cargoes needed for the station's expansion — a job the small Progress ships can't handle.
The Columbia disaster has sparked fears in Russia that NASA may decide to suspend work on the station and leave it temporarily unmanned — a prospect that would leave Moscow without any manned space program of its own for the first time since it put the first man into space in 1961.
"We must do everything to prevent the collapse of the international space station project which is the accomplishment of the entire mankind," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Tuesday on a visit to the Khrunichev space center, the nation's top rocket manufacturer.
Ivanov, who is heading to New York to take part in a U.N. Security Council session Wednesday on Iraq, said he would emphasize the need to push ahead with space cooperation in his meetings with U.S. officials.
"The loss of the space shuttle Columbia is our common tragedy," Ivanov said. "But we must get over this tragedy and continue joint space research."
In the past, U.S. shuttles have ferried long-term crews to the station, while Russian rockets have carried cosmonauts and space tourists on short visits, using a fresh Soyuz craft and leaving it behind as an emergency lifeboat for the station's crew.
Expedition Six, as the current crew is called, arrived at the station in November and is scheduled to return to in March. It is possible they could stay somewhat longer.
However, if the shuttles are still grounded by late spring or early summer, and a more regular supply stream is not yet in place, the three space station residents would have to use that lifeboat to return to Earth, CBS News space consultant William Harwood reports.
Russia must send two Soyuz capsules and three Progress supply ships to the station each year under an agreement with partners in the project. Without shuttle missions, up to six Progress ships will be needed to continue running the station, Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev said, according to the Interfax-Military News Agency.
One Progress costs about $22 million, a price Russian officials have said will have to be picked up by their partners if extra ships are needed.
Although it normally takes two years to produce a Soyuz or a Progress, Yuri Semyonov, the head of the RKK Energiya company — which makes the spacecraft — said that it can build them as quickly as needed if it gets paid.
With no permanent crew aboard, the space station can operate in a "dormant" mode as long as occasional maintenance is performed by visiting astronauts. In fact, NASA had already been considering a "demanning" contingency for 2003 before Saturday's events.
But the longer the station went unoccupied, the greater the chances that it would deteriorate to an uninhabitable state. A dormant period would also cause a significant interruption in the station's continuing assembly and scientific research program.
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for more than 15 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.