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‘Dragon arriving’: For first time, astronauts reach the space station in SpaceX capsule

Alan Boyle
A camera mounted on the International Space Station shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule hooked up to a port on the station’s Harmony module. (NASA via YouTube)

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.

The astronauts and NASA mission controllers spent more than two hours conducting leak checks and communication checks, leading up to the opening of the final hatch between Endeavour and the space station at 10:02 a.m. PT. Minutes later, Hurley and Behnken floated through the hatch, hugged their new space station crewmates and lined up for a photo op.

“We’re just really glad to be on board this magnificent complex,” said Hurley, who bumped his head as he came through the hatch.

The astronauts of International Space Station and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour line up for a portrait. From left: Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, NASA space station commander Chris Cassidy, and Endeavour astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. (NASA via YouTube)

Over a space-to-ground video link, Hurley said he hoped the past week’s achievements would provide a dose of optimism amid the coronavirus pandemic, economic reversals and waves of civil unrest.

“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, to inspire especially the young people of the United States to reach for these lofty goals, and work hard and look at what you can accomplish,” he said.

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 launch from Florida. 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. Before the launch, Hurley acknowledged that the interface was “a little bit different.” Today, he gave it a great review.

“It flew just like it was supposed to. … It is exactly like the simulator, and we couldn’t be happier about the performance of the vehicle,” Hurley said. (You can try out the simulator for yourself on SpaceX’s website.)

Behnken said the ride started out more smoothly than the typical shuttle launch, but that “Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit” when the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage kicked in.

“We were definitely driving and riding a Dragon all the way up,” he said. “And so it was not quite the same ride, the smooth ride the space shuttle was. … A little less G’s, but a little bit more ‘alive’ is the best way I would describe it.”

Behnken said he and Hurley got “a good seven hours or so” of sleep during the flight. Based on the space-to-ground conversation before hatch opening, they also had an opportunity to use Dragon’s onboard toilet.

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.

“Doug and I will be able to take some of the burden off Chris and his crewmates,” Behnken said.

Gallery: Launch pad photos capture historic SpaceX liftoff in all its glory

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 $90 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.

This report was first published at 8:54 a.m. PT May 31.

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