CAPE CANAVERAL, Dec. 25 -- An unmanned Russian cargo ship brought the international space station's two-man crew a much-needed Christmas present Saturday: 2 1/2 tons of equipment, supplies and more than enough food to ease a serious shortage.
With the station's pantry down to a two-week supply of U.S. and Russian menu items, the Progress 16 spacecraft docked to the aft port of the Zvezda command module at 6:58 p.m., two days after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The automated docking was to have occurred in orbital darkness over the south Atlantic just off the east coast of Brazil, out of radio contact with flight controllers near Moscow. But at the last minute, flight director Vladimir Solovyev decided to delay the docking until both spacecraft moved back into range of Russian ground stations to provide telemetry and television views.
Flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov, meanwhile, stood by in the station's command module, monitoring the supply ship's position and poised to take over by remote control if necessary. But the automated linkup went off without a hitch.
"Contact confirmed . . . hip, hip hooray! Congratulations," a flight controller called from Moscow. "Happy New Year!"
The successful docking alleviated an unexpected crisis aboard the station, one in which poor inventory management -- and the hearty appetites of the preceding crew -- left Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao and Sharipov with less food than expected.
Had the Progress 16 spacecraft failed to reach the station, the crew would have been forced to return to Earth aboard the lab's Soyuz reentry vehicle by the end of the first week of January, ending more than four years of continuously manned operations.
"That's not something we want to do," Chiao told a reporter a few days ago. "The reason we have a crew on board is because we can maintain the station and keep it going. Without a crew on board, there's a much higher possibility of a malfunction . . . getting us into a bad situation."
The Progress supply ship was loaded with 5,047 pounds of cargo, including 1,234 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water and 2,777 pounds of dry goods.
The latter category included repair equipment and spare parts, experiment hardware, clothing, three laptop computers and about 69 food containers, 40 of which contain American choices and 29 of which feature Russian menu items.
That supply gives Chiao and Sharipov enough food for 67 days of operations at one full ration per day per crew member and an additional 45 days at a consumption rate of 0.8 rations per crew member per day.
That food is more than enough to last the station astronauts until the arrival of the next Progress, on March 2.
Chiao and Sharipov are the station's 10th full-time crew. They arrived at the outpost in mid-October, replacing Expedition 9 commander Gennady Padalka and flight engineer Michael Fincke.
The food shortage was discovered last month and, since then, "we've been kind of cutting back on our rations to conserve our food so that we could stretch things out until the Progress can arrive," Chiao said earlier in the week.
Chiao blamed the shortage on "a problem with inventory where the last crew kind of got into our food, and the biggest problem with that was that somehow they failed to communicate accurately to the ground what exactly had happened, particularly on the Russian side."
"So, consequently, we did not bring enough food with us [in October] on our Soyuz to make up for what they had taken," he said.
"Unfortunately, we didn't know that right away. It took a month and a half or so of living on the station before we realized our stocks were getting a little low."
Chiao said the shortage would serve as a "lesson learned" for flight planning.
"You know, we're up here in space and, especially on a longer-duration mission where we're heading out towards Mars or something, we've got to have everything planned out and execute the procedures properly to make sure something like this doesn't happen," he said. "So this is a learning experience. . . . I don't think it will happen again."