NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have once again helped make history for SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, by docking to a football field-size laboratory above Earth.
After careening into space on Saturday atop a Falcon 9 rocket, the astronauts’ spaceship – a Crew Dragon capsule they later named “Endeavour” – disconnected from its launcher and entered orbit. The ship then completed a series of engine burns to catch up to the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits about 250 miles (402 km) above the planet’s surface while travelling 17,500 mph (28,163 km/h).
On Sunday morning, Behnken and Hurley finally caught up to their target. Endeavour flew below the $US150 billion orbiting laboratory, later pulling up to a stopping point about 220 meters in front of the space station.
The two men then spent a few minutes manually controlling the ship’s thrusters through touchscreens while connected to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre and SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
“It flew just about like the [simulator], so my congratulations to the folks in Hawthorne. It flew really well, very really crisp,” Hurley said during a live webcast, adding that its handling was “a little sloppier” in an up-down direction, though as expected.
Behnken and Hurley then turned Endeavour’s autopilot back on, and the spacecraft ever-so-carefully flew itself toward a docking port called Node 2, located at the forward end of the space station.
The ship’s docking mechanism connected to the node at 10:16 am ET while flying over northern China and Mongolia. Latches on the ship then tightly sealed Endeavour to the ISS, allowing the crews to begin a roughly two-hour-long hatch-opening procedure.
‘A new chapter in human space exploration’
SpaceX’s docking at the ISS is the first by a privately developed spaceship with a crew on board.
The last time an American spaceship attached to the space station was July 2011 – the flight of space shuttle Atlantis, a mission that Hurley flew on.
“It’s been a real honour to be a super-small part of this nine-year endeavour, since the last time a United States spaceship has docked with the International Space Station,” Hurley said shortly after docking. “We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX at Hawthorne, McGregor, and at Kennedy Space Centre. Their incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible cannot go overstated.”
Hurley then thanked NASA’s staff, after which the ISS commander and astronaut Chris Cassidy rang a ceremonial bell while welcoming Behnken and Hurley.
NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, where US mission control for the ISS is based, then chimed in with its own congratulations.
“Endeavour this is Houston. Bob and Doug, welcome to the International Space Station,” said Joshua Kutryk, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut in the control room, calling the crew’s flight a “historic ride” and a “magnificent moment in spaceflight history.”
“You have opened up a new chapter in human space exploration,” he added.
An historic 110-day test mission begins in earnest
After docking, the crews of Endeavour and the ISS prepared to open their hatches, which they did at 1:02 pm ET. After about 20 minutes of safety checks, Behnken and Hurley soared through Endeavour’s hatch and into the waiting arms of commander Cassidy, cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, and cosmonaut Ivan Vagner.
The crews then grabbed a mic to talk to mission control in Houston, where NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rep. Brian Babin of Texas awaited a chance to speak.
“The whole world saw this mission, and we are so, so proud of everything you have done for our country and, in fact, to inspire the world,” Bridenstine said.
“It’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business,” Hurley responded. “We’re just really glad to be on board this magnificent complex.”
Bridenstine also asked if the two astronauts got any sleep: “We did get probably a good seven hours or so,” Behnken said.
Cruz asked about the handling of the Crew Dragon: “It flew just like it was supposed to,” Hurley said.
The junior senator also asked the astronauts what Americans could learn about coming together from their test mission, called Demo-2, during a “tough week” for the country – a reference to protests that have erupted across the US in response to a white police officer’s killing of George Floyd, a black man.
Hurley spoke about SpaceX and NASA working together through years of sacrifice to restore the US’ ability to launch people into orbit.
“This is just one effort that we can show for the ages in this dark time that we’ve had over the past several months,” Hurley said.
Sen. Babin asked what it was like to rocket to orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
“We were surprised a little bit at how smooth things were off the pad. The space shuttle was a pretty rough ride heading into orbit with the solid rocket boosters,” Behnken said. But he noted the shuttle was “a lot smoother” after its boosters fell off than Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon was for the duration of that flight.
“Dragon was huffin’ and puffin’ all the way into orbit. We were definitely driving and riding a dragon all the way up. So it was not quite the same ride, the smooth ride, as the space shuttle was,” Behnken said, adding that SpaceX’s launch system was “a little bit more alive.”
The successful docking means Behnken and Hurley have a home in space for up to the next 110 days. When their stay ends, the astronauts will climb back into the Endeavour, disembark from the ISS, and careen back to Earth.
The overarching goal of the test mission is to show SpaceX’s ship is safe to fly people.
If NASA determines it is, then the agency can fully staff the space station with astronaut crews and maximise its ability to perform research.
SpaceX, meanwhile, will gain the ability to fly private astronauts to space – even including Tom Cruise, who hopes to film a movie aboard his planned stay on the ISS.
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