HOUSTON — A Russian Progress cargo capsule carried out a flawless accelerated launch and docking with the six-man International Space Station on Feb. 11, setting the stage for the first same-day launch and docking of a human crew on March 28.

The Soyuz TMA-08M crew, led by veteran cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, includes NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian Alexander Misurkin.

The Progress flight marked the third successive accelerated four-orbit, or 6 hr., transit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan within the last seven months. Prior to this, trips typically took place over a 32-33 orbit, 50-hr. timeline.

The unpiloted 50 Progress, carrying nearly 3 tons of propellant, research gear, spare parts, water, compressed air and other supplies, successfully executed an automated docking with the station’s Russian segment Pirs docking port at 3:35 p.m. EST. The supply craft lifted off from  Baikonur at 9:41 a.m. EST, starting its climb to orbit 870 mi. behind the station. Within 10 min. of starting its journey, the Progress deployed solar arrays and communications antennas to begin the chase.

The fast-track Soyuz crew missions would lessen considerably the time station astronauts must spend in the cramped Soyuz capsules and eliminate the discomfort some fliers report with the “barbecue roll,” or rotations of the spacecraft as a thermal control measure. However, the faster missions may require Soyuz crews to spend the entire transit in their restrictive Russian pressure suits.

There is an overhead for ground-based flight controllers with the expedited missions as well. They must track with greater precision the location of the ISS as it orbits the Earth and quickly recalculate Soyuz and Progress trajectories in response to small maneuvers of the station, including those carried out to avoid potential collisions with space debris.

The 48 Progress mission spacecraft, which launched and docked on Aug. 1 to start the series of expedited cargo missions, departed the ISS on Feb. 9 to clear a berthing spot on the Pirs docking module for the new supply ship. The older resupply capsule, filled with station trash, re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean several hours later.

The former Soviet Union launched similar express missions to support its manned Salyut space stations between 1971 and 1986. NASA’s two astronaut Gemini VI and VII missions carried out a four-orbit rendezvous in December 1965.

Russia launched the second of its ISS expedited missions, 49 Progress, on Oct. 31. Progress 49 remains docked to the orbital outpost.