SpaceX’s new crew capsule has arrived at the International Space Station, completing its second milestone in just over a day.
No one was on board the Dragon capsule that launched on Saturday on its first test flight, only an instrumented dummy. But the three station astronauts had front-row seats as the sleek, white vessel neatly docked and became the first American-made, designed-for-crew spacecraft to pull up in eight years.
TV cameras on Dragon, as well as the space station, provided stunning views of one another throughout the rendezvous. If the six-day demonstration goes well, SpaceX could launch two astronauts this summer under Nasa’s commercial crew programme.
Both astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — were at SpaceX Mission Control in Southern California, observing all the action. They rushed there from Florida after watching the Dragon rocket into orbit early on Saturday from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center.
“Just super excited to see it,” Behnken said minutes after the link-up. “Just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight coming up here.”
While SpaceX has sent plenty of cargo Dragons to the space station, crew Dragon is a different beast. It docked autonomously under the station astronauts’ watchful eyes, instead of relying on the station’s robot arm for berthing.
Behnken said that is the way it should work when he and Hurley are on board; they may push a button or two and will have the ability to intervene, if necessary.
As part of Sunday’s shakedown, the station astronauts sent commands for the Dragon to retreat and then move forward again, before the capsule closed in for good.
SpaceX employees at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California cheered and applauded as crew Dragon pulled up and docked at the orbiting lab, nearly 420km above the Pacific, north of New Zealand.
They burst into applause again, several minutes later, when the Dragon’s latches were tightly secured.
The station astronauts offered congratulations to SpaceX, as they got ready to open the hatches and collect the supplies stashed aboard Dragon.
The capsule’s lone passenger — a mannequin wearing a white SpaceX spacesuit — also was going to be welcomed on board.
The test dummy — or Smarty as SpaceX likes to call it, given all the instrumentation — is named Ripley after the lead character in the science-fiction Alien films.
Dragon will remain at the space station until Friday, when it undocks and aims for a splashdown in the Atlantic, a couple hundred kilometres off the Florida coast.
Like Ripley, the capsule is rigged with sensors to measure noise, vibration and stresses, and to monitor the life-support, propulsion and other critical systems throughout the flight.