10/24/2012 04:20 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

Soyuz to dock at space station Thursday

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station at 8:30 a.m. ET Thursday.

Two Russian flight engineers and one American are aboard: Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Kevin Ford.

They will join Cmdr. Suni Williams and flight engineers Aki Hoshide and Yuri Malenchenko, who have been aboard since July 17.

NASA said Wednesday that crewmembers on the orbiting laboratory have been conducting routine maintenance and research, getting ready for the departure of the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft on Sunday.

The Dragon arrived Oct. 10 at the space station, becoming the first commercial resupply mission to reach it.

Also on the schedule is a spacewalk Nov. 1 to repair what has been described as a radiator ammonia leak.

The Russian spacecraft surged into clear skies over the Central Asian steppe on Tuesday.

“I spoke with the astronauts after they reached orbit,” Russian Space Agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said. “They feel well. Everything went fine, despite the windy conditions.”

The crew will face what may be the heaviest workload in the 12-year history of the space station over its first week.

Of the three in Tuesday’s takeoff, only Ford has flown in space before. He spent two weeks as pilot of the space shuttle Discovery in 2009 on a mission to transport scientific equipment to the space station.

Tuesday’s launch took place in unseasonably warm conditions and afforded the small crowd of space officials, well-wishers and family members of the astronauts at the viewing platform a clear sight of the rocket disappearing into the distance.

Burst of applause

Within a few seconds of the launch, the first set of booster rockets detached as planned in a puff of smoke and fell to earth leaving a streak of black fumes in its wake.

An announcer informed the crowd of the craft’s progress over a loudspeaker. After nine minutes, he announced the Soyuz had reached orbit, prompting a burst of applause for the successful start to the mission.

Televised footage showed the soft toy hippopotamus mascot dangling over the crew floating in weightlessness.

The crew will have been packed into the cramped Soyuz for 48 hours before finally docking with the space station.

For the first time since 1984, the manned takeoff took place from the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome’s launch site 31.

The pad that is normally used for such missions-- the one where Yury Gagarin became the first human to travel into space in 1961, is being modernized. Site No. 1, better known as Gagarin’s Start, was last overhauled in 1983.