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Astronauts Dock with Space Station after historic SpaceX launch

Once astronauts begin using the capsule with regularity, space tourists could also begin to fly it in the years to come; Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley could stay in orbit for months to aid the station's short-staffed crew

By Kenneth Chang
Published: Jun 1, 2020

Astronauts Dock with Space Station after historic SpaceX launchIn this screen grab from NASA's feed, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (R) and Bob Behnken (2R) join NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy (C) and Russian cosmonauts, Anatoly Ivanishin (L) and Ivan Vagner (2L) aboard the International Space Station after successfully docking SpaceX's Dragon capsule May 31, 2020. The docking occurred just 19 hours after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Saturday afternoon from Kennedy Space Center, the nation’s first astronaut launch to orbit from home soil in nearly a decade. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

The Crew Dragon has arrived.

On Saturday, SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk, launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule carrying two NASA astronauts on top. SpaceX is now the first private business to accomplish a feat — taking people to orbit — that had until now only been done by nations.

Less than a day later, the spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, successfully completing the first leg of its journey.

This Crew Dragon test flight is a shakedown cruise to certify that the spacecraft meets NASA’s needs and safety standards in order to start routine trips taking astronauts to and from the space station. The agency has relied on Russia for that task since the space shuttles were retired in 2011. Once astronauts begin using the capsule with regularity, space tourists could also begin to fly it in the years to come.

At 1:22 p.m. EDT, the two astronauts, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, disembarked the Crew Dragon, exchanging handshakes and hugs with the three astronauts already on the space station.

“Welcome to the International Space Station,” Christopher Cassidy, the NASA astronaut who is current commander of the space station, said to Behnken and Hurley. “Please come aboard.”

In a welcoming ceremony, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, addressed the astronauts from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where space station operations are managed.

“I will tell you 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. He then asked the astronauts if they had managed to get any sleep during the 19-hour trip.

“We did get probably a good seven hours or so opportunity for sleep.” Behnken replied. “And I did succeed at sleep.”

The current mission will not be a complete success until Behnken and Hurley return to Earth in the Crew Dragon, which they have named Endeavour, the same name as the retired space shuttle that both men flew on and the British sailing ship commanded by James Cook as he explored the Pacific.

“This has gone as well as we could have expected it to go,” Bridenstine said during a news conference after the docking.

Bridenstine and other officials, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, have offered the successful launch as a hopeful inspiration to serve as a contrast to riots that have followed the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota who died after a policeman knelt on his neck.

But Bridenstine agreed that while the SpaceX mission might bring people together, it is not by itself a solution to social unrest.

“If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation might have been a little high,” he said.

For now, Behnken and Hurley have an open-ended stay in orbit. The Crew Dragon test flight was originally scheduled to last only a couple of weeks, enabling the astronauts to test out capabilities of the capsule including serving as a shelter in case of an emergency.

But there have been delays in completing work on the spacecraft, as well as another that NASA is depending on for astronaut transportation, Boeing’s Starliner capsule. As a result, the space station is currently short-staffed with only three astronauts aboard — Cassidy and two Russians, Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin — limiting how much scientific research can be conducted.

Behnken and Hurley can also assist with refurbishment tasks like spacewalks to install new lithium ion batteries that just arrived in a Japanese cargo ship.

The Crew Dragon is currently certified for up to four months in space. The spacecraft’s solar panels gradually decay over time, and the worry is that if it is docked too long, the panels would not be able to generate enough power for a safe reentry to Earth’s atmosphere.

But over the next few weeks, the astronauts will periodically turn on the Crew Dragon and check. If the solar arrays turn out to be more resilient than predicted, the mission could be extended beyond four months.

During the welcome ceremony, Brian Babin, a Republican congressman whose district includes the Johnson Space Center, asked how this flight compared with the astronauts’ earlier trips to space aboard the space shuttles.

Behnken said that while the shuttles offered a rougher ride getting off the launch pad, the ascent became smoother. “But Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit,” he said. “A little bit more alive is probably the best way I would describe it.”

Once in orbit, the spacecraft appeared to smoothly pass all of its tests. “Today, the Dragon is extremely healthy,” said Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. “There’s really no major problems.

During Sunday’s docking, the approach of the Crew Dragon proceeded smoothly, about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, with a camera on the space station capturing the red, green and white lights of the capsule as it steadily crept up over the course of a couple of hours. The astronauts took over manual control for a while, firing the thrusters to nudge the position of the spacecraft. They then turned control back to a computer on board for the final steps, leading to docking at 10:30 a.m. EDT.

Behnken and Hurley then had to wait close to three hours more as air pressure was equalized between their capsule and the station, tests verified no air leaks and the spacecraft was plugged into the outpost’s power systems.

“As you are performing your inventory please collect all your food and water bottle trash,” Anna Menon, a SpaceX mission controller in Hawthorne, California, reminded Behnken and Hurley before they exited their spacecraft.

If no major problems arise during this test flight, NASA will use data from this flight to certify that the Crew Dragon is ready for routine flights to the space station. The next Crew Dragon mission — and the first operational one — is to carry four astronauts: three from NASA and one from the Japanese space agency.

But Behnken and Hurley got there first.

“We were just the lucky guys who got to fly the rocket yesterday,” Hurley said.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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