For the first time in nearly nine years, astronauts have arrived at the International Space Station in a spaceship that was made in the USA.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which was christened Endeavour soon after Saturday’s launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, hooked up with the station at 7:16 a.m. PT today.
Endeavour brought NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the station’s Harmony port, prompting space station commander Chris Cassidy to ring the naval bell that’s part of the tradition for welcoming space crews.
“Dragon arriving,” Cassidy declared.
NASA managers conducted leak checks and communication checks, in preparation for opening the hatches and having Hurley and Behnken float into the station.
The last time a U.S.-built spaceship carried crew to the space station was in July 2011, during the final space shuttle mission. Hurley was also on that mission, and played a role in leaving behind a U.S. flag that flew on the first shuttle flight.
For nine years, that flag has been waiting to be picked up by the next crew to arrive on a U.S. spaceship. Now Hurley and Behnken have won the right to reclaim the flag and bring it back to Earth.
Since 2012, SpaceX’s first-generation Dragon capsules have been delivering supplies to the station and bringing shipments back to Earth. And last year, an uncrewed second-generation Crew Dragon visited the station during a demonstration mission. But the current flight, known as Demonstration Mission 2 or DM-2, marked the first time that a spacecraft built and owned by a private company carried crew to orbit and then onward to the station.
For most of the 19-hour flight, Endeavour was under autonomous control, but Hurley and Behnken did get a couple of chances to try out the craft’s manual touchscreen controls — the first time such an interface has been used for spaceflight. (You can try it out for yourself on SpaceX’s website.)
“It’s a little bit different way of doing it,” Hurley said during a pre-launch briefing, “but the design in general has worked out very well.”
Hurley and Behnken will be working alongside Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner in the weeks ahead, but NASA hasn’t yet decided how long the Dragon riders will stay. It could be anywhere between six and 16 weeks, depending on how the demonstration mission goes and on the timing for future crewed missions.
When it’s time for the two astronauts to come home, they’ll climb back into Endeavour and ride the Dragon back to an Atlantic splashdown and recovery.
Only then will SpaceX CEO Elon Musk breathe a full sigh of relief. “We need to bring them home safely and make sure that we are doing everything we can to minimize that risk of re-entry,” he told reporters on Saturday.
If the mission is fully successful, that would open the way for regular Crew Dragon trips to and from the station, freeing NASA from the obligation to pay the Russians upwards of $80 million per seat for rides on Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said one Soyuz seat has been purchased for an October flight, just to be safe.
Next year, Boeing’s Starliner space taxi is due to join the rotation — assuming that a rerun of last December’s not-totally-successful uncrewed demonstration flight goes as planned.