This morning, SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station, bringing the company’s first crew to the orbiting outpost. Their arrival marks another major milestone for SpaceX’s first crewed mission of the Crew Dragon, which successfully took off yesterday, May 30th, from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Now, the Crew Dragon’s passengers — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — are set to begin an extended stay on board the ISS that could last up to four months. They will join three crew mates already living on board the station: NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
“It’s been a real honor to be a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States spaceship docked with the International Space Station,” Hurley said after docking completed. “We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX, at Hawthorne McGregor and at Kennedy Space Center. Their incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible can not go overstated.”
The Crew Dragon’s docking showcased one of the biggest features of SpaceX’s capsule: its automated docking system. The vehicle is designed to autonomously approach the ISS and latch on to a standardized docking port, without any input from its human passengers. SpaceX successfully showcased this ability last year when the company sent a test version of the Crew Dragon to the space station without a crew on board. But this time, the company needed to prove that the Crew Dragon could deliver when it had its most precious cargo on board.
This automated docking capability is a significant upgrade for the Crew Dragon. The predecessor to the capsule, SpaceX’s cargo Dragon, did not have this capability when it delivered supplies and food to the ISS. For all of those cargo missions, astronauts on board the ISS had to use the station’s robotic arm to grab hold of an approaching cargo Dragon and bring it onto a docking port. That technique is known as berthing, and it requires a lot of work from the astronauts on board the ISS. The Crew Dragon’s automated capabilities should help free up time for the astronauts to work on other things when new crews arrive.
Astronauts flying inside the Crew Dragon still have the capability to take over manual control of the vehicle if necessary. In fact, Behnken and Hurley tried out some manual flying during their time in space — once after launching and a second time during their approach to the space station. Flying the vehicle manually involves interfacing with the Crew Dragon’s sleek interior touchscreen displays. The gloves of SpaceX’s pressure suits are touchscreen-compatible, allowing the astronauts to interact with the screens while suited up if necessary. When the crew got to 220 meters out from the ISS, Hurley demonstrated that he could fly the vehicle while gloved before the automatic docking system took over. The plumes from the capsule’s tiny thrusters could be seen from the space station’s cameras as the vehicle inched toward the ISS.
Their docking comes after the astronauts spent about 19 hours inside Crew Dragon orbiting around Earth, following Saturday’s launch. After reaching orbit, Behnken and Hurley announced that they had named their capsule Endeavour. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons: one, because of this incredible endeavor NASA, SpaceX, and the United States has been on since the end of the Shuttle program back in 2011,” Hurley said during an event right after launching to space. “The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I. We both had our first flights on Shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much to us to carry on that name.”
During the journey in space, Behnken and Hurley got some shut-eye before approaching the ISS to get a better sense of what sleeping on the Crew Dragon is like. It turns out, it’s a comfortable place for a nap. “We had a good night’s sleep last night,” Behnken said during an event before arriving at the ISS. “We were surprised, I think, in how well we actually slept aboard the vehicle — a little bit quieter than the Space Shuttle, a little bit more environmentally controlled.” The Crew Dragon also sports a toilet in case they needed to use the facilities during the trip (though the crew did not say if they used it).
Docking took place around 10:29AM ET this morning, and now it’s a little bit of a wait before Behnken and Hurley exit the vehicle. The astronauts will open the hatch of the Crew Dragon at around 12:45PM ET. The crew will then host a small welcoming ceremony about 30 minutes later.
Now that Behnken and Hurley have arrived at the ISS, it’s unclear when they’ll be coming home. The two are expected to stay somewhere between six and 16 weeks on board the ISS. It all depends on how much work NASA wants them to do while they’re up there. At some point, NASA will decide when to bring the duo home. That’s when Behnken and Hurley will climb back inside the Crew Dragon and take the plunge back to Earth.
The Crew Dragon is equipped with a heat shield to protect astronauts from the scorching trip through Earth’s atmosphere. It also sports four parachutes designed to help lower crews gently down into the Atlantic Ocean, where they’ll be recovered by a SpaceX vessel. That intense journey will be the final test of the Crew Dragon for NASA as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, the initiative to fly NASA astronauts on private vehicles to and from the space station.
For now, SpaceX and the Crew Dragon get a slight reprieve as the first half of this crucial test mission is complete. The crews will perform checks of the Crew Dragon while it’s docked at the ISS, but it will mostly remain inert, like a parked car in a lot. When the time comes for Behnken and Hurley to return home, all eyes will be on the Crew Dragon’s performance once again.