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SpaceX Crew Dragon flies to Space Station

The launch site of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon spacecraft (AN/Andrea Hanks)

(Arête News) — Two NASA astronauts arrived on Sunday at the International Space Station aboard their Crew Dragon capsule, a day after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made the first American crewed launch in nearly a decade.

The Crew Dragon manned by NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — both former military pilots who have each flown two Space Shuttle missions — reached the ISS’s Harmony port, docking while the spacecraft were flying about 262 miles above the northern border of China and Mongolia, NASA said in a statement. The journey appeared live on NASA TV‘s official video stream.

Twelve hooks were closed to complete the “capture” process of joining the capsule with the space station, the U.S. space agency said, adding that its teams made “standard leak checks and pressurization between the spacecraft” before opening the hatch about two hours later.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner welcomed Behnken and Hurley aboard the space station. Cassidy commands Expedition 63, the latest ISS mission, which began on April 17 when the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft undocked.

This mission will continue until the undocking of the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft scheduled in October.

The successful launch by SpaceX and NASA on Saturday signaled the start of a new era in space travel, since it was the first time that a privately built and owned rocket launched astronauts into orbit.

SpaceX had not launched people before; its previous launches carried satellites or ISS supplies. Poor weather forced the postponement of the first attempt three days earlier, but this latest one went off without a hitch.

The Crew Dragon capsule separated from the booster 12 minutes after the flight began, then docked with the International Space Station, or ISS, about 19 hours later.

It marked a major achievement for SpaceX and its founder, billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who started the space company in 2002 with a dream of sending people to Mars. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the same site where the celebrated Apollo 11 crew departed in 1969 to land the first people on the Moon.

Behnken and Hurley tested the manual controls, but the capsule arrived at the station and docked automatically without their help. They floated into the orbiting space station, then embraced the three men already there.

The two new arrivals were in quarantine for weeks, so there was no need for face masks or social distancing to safeguard the ISS and its inhabitants against the terrestrial scourge of the coronavirus.

100,000 people working together

Since the U.S. space shuttle program closed in 2011, NASA has been paying Russia to launch its astronauts aboard Soyuz rockets that cost the U.S. government more than US$80 million per seat.

NASA has been encouraging private companies to develop “space taxis” for U.S. launches, however, and it awarded SpaceX and Boeing US$6.8 billion in contracts in 2014 to send astronauts to ISS. Boeing’s first astronaut flight is expected next year.

The U.S. space agency praised this latest mission, called NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, marking its first launch in history in which its astronauts departed from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the ISS.

“Today a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

“The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence,” he said, “and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars.”

The ISS was launched in 1998 through combined American and Russian efforts. For two decades, the US$100 billion space station has been a hub for living and experimenting in space — and example of how science can help nations rise above political rivalries.

The purpose of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission — only the second spaceflight test of the Crew Dragon capsule and the first one with astronauts aboard — was to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. It will certify Crew Dragon for regular crew flights to the ISS.

“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” said Musk, who also has the title of SpaceX’s chief engineer.

“It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen,” he said. “You can look at this as the results of 100,000 people roughly, when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

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