A day after its launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX’s uncrewed Crew Dragon spacecraft has successfully docked with the International Space Station, CNN reported on Sunday.
That the docking procedure went without error is not only a sigh of relief for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program—the project to replace the retired Space Shuttle that is years behind schedule—but excellent news for the three astronauts currently residing on the station. There was a chance that the Crew Dragon, which Russian space operators warned did not have a backup docking system, would fail to successfully attach to the station. As CNN noted, there was also a risk that it could damage the ISS:
Though NASA and SpaceX were confident it would go seamlessly, it was a reminder that “there’s always human life at risk,” Patrick Forrester, chief of NASA’s astronaut office at Johnson Space Center, said last week.
... The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, only approved NASA and SpaceX’s docking plans on Wednesday, just two days ahead of Crew Dragon’s launch.
“They wanted us to take some steps where we would protect the space station, close another hatch or two, and have the crew ready to go in the Soyuz,” said NASA’s deputy ISS manager Joel Montalbano, referring to the Soyuz crew capsule that would allow cosmonauts to make an emergency exit if things went haywire.
CNN noted that the successful docking procedure was a first for SpaceX, which has already run Dragon 1 capsule cargo missions to the ISS but previously relied on the station’s robotic arm to grab that craft and manually drag it to the docking port. According to NPR, astronauts aboard the ISS were able to board the Crew Dragon around 7:07 a.m. time in Houston, where NASA staff were watching the event, and later returned without oxygen masks to properly inspect the craft.
“It was super exciting to see it,” Bob Behnken, one of the two astronauts slated to ride in the Crew Dragon’s first crewed test later this year (possibly in July), told the BBC. “I know you heard the applause and all the clapping that went along with the accomplishment today and so it’s just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight coming up here.”
After five days at the ISS, the Crew Dragon will return to Earth on March 8 for an aquatic landing in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s the part of the uncrewed test run that concerns SpaceX CEO Elon Musk the most, the BBC wrote.
“It should be fine, but that’ll be a thing to make sure it works on re-entry,” Musk said, according to the BBC. “Everything we know so far is looking positive. Unless something goes wrong I should think we’ll be flying (people) this year; this summer, hopefully.”
Boeing, which is working on its own CST-100 Starliner craft for the Commercial Crew Program, has yet to launch an uncrewed test but is scheduled to do so no earlier than April.
“Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence, getting us closer to once again flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in a statement. “I proudly congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams for this major milestone in our nation’s space history.”