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Life aboard the International Space Station is about to become more chummy

When they're not making orbital history, the full complement of six crew members may have to line up for the shower.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2009

In this photo provided by NASA, the international space station is backdropped by Earth as seen from space shuttle Atlantis Tuesday June 19, 2007.

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After 25 years, four make-overs, and a shift from Cold War icon to a truly international orbiting outpost, the International Space Station is about to reach a milestone: Its first full complement of six crew members.

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On Friday a Russian Soyuz capsule is scheduled to arrive at the station bearing Russia's Roman Romanenko, Canada's Robert Thirsk, and the European Space Agency's Frank De Winne. They launched at 6:34 this morning Eastern Daylight Time into clear skies over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and are now playing catch-up with the space station.

Over the years, 173 people have spent time aboard the station – including six well-heeled tourists, as well as astronauts from 15 countries. Until now, however, the outpost has been formally staffed with at most three full-time crew members. For three years following the Columbia accident in 2003, the station only hosted a crew of two while the shuttle program recovered.

And for the first time, the station's crew will consist of representatives of all five major partners. When astronauts Romanenko, Thirsk, and De Winne move through the hatch and into the station, they will join astronauts from the US, Japan, and Russia.

"We've been looking forward to getting to this increment for a long, long time," says Dan Hartman, who manages space-station operations and integration for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

For Europe in particular, today's launch represents a turning point in its role on orbit. Through September, De Winne will serve as a flight engineer. But in October, he takes over as Europe's first space-station commander.

The moment has not been lost on Simonetta di Pippo, the European Space Agency's director of human spaceflight.

"Human spaceflight and exploration is gaining momentum, and we will be working for Europe to seize bigger opportunities in this field," she said.

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