Astronauts Dock With Space Station After Historic SpaceX Launch

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. Eastern time, the two astronauts, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. 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 Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley. “Please come aboard.”

ImageBob Behnken and Doug Hurley, far right, joining the crew at the International Space Station, after the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the station on Sunday.
Credit…NASA

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,” Mr. 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.” Mr. Behnken replied. “And I did succeed at sleep.”

The current mission will not be a complete success until Mr. Behnken and Mr. 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,” Mr. Bridenstine said during a news conference after the docking.

Mr. Bridenstine and other officials including President 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 kneed on his neck.

But Mr. 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, Mr. Behnken and Mr. 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 — Mr. Cassidy and two Russians, Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin — limiting how much scientific research can be conducted.

Mr. Behnken and Mr. 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 re-entry 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.

Mr. Behnken said that while the shuttles offered a rougher ride getting off the launchpad, 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. Eastern time.

Mr. Behnken and Mr. 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, Calif., reminded Mr. Behnken and Mr. 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 Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley got there first.

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

Credit…NASA