The unmanned Progress M-53 spacecraft, which took off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, hooked up with the station just after 4.30am (0041 GMT) on Sunday, several minutes ahead of schedule, Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin said.

Lyndin said Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who is on the station with US crewmate John Phillips, manually steered the cargo ship into a smooth embrace with the station after the autopilot system failed minutes before the docking.

"Shortly before the docking, the autopilot switched off because of communications problems," Lyndin said by telephone from Mission Control in Korolyov, just outside Moscow. "Communications were quickly restored, but the Mission Control decided to play it safe and asked the crew to conduct a manual docking."

Soyuz spacecraft are guided by autopilot on their approach to the station and during the docking, but the crew is trained to operate it manually in case of computer or communications failure.

Food and snails

The ship delivered about 2.4 metric tonnes of food, water, fuel and other supplies for Krikalev and Phillips, who have been on the orbiting station since April. The cargo includes scientific equipment and spare parts for the station's main oxygen generator, which has been broken.

Along with other cargo, the spaceship brought 60 snails intended for biological experiments. It also delivered some movies and other personal items for the crew, Lyndin said.

Russian Soyuz crew capsules and Progress cargo ships have been the only link to the space station since the US shuttle fleet was grounded after the Columbia shuttle burned up as it returned to Earth in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Nasa has said it plans to resume shuttle flights as early as next month.