SpaceX’s Crew Dragon docks crew of four to the International Space Station

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station this evening, more than a day after launching to space from Florida. The vehicle’s arrival marks the beginning of the first long-duration mission for the Crew Dragon, a type of flight the spacecraft will perform periodically for NASA over the next few years.

Inside the Crew Dragon are NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi — all part of a mission called Crew-1. Their spacecraft slowly approached the International Space Station this evening and attached itself onto an open docking port on the outside of the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is designed to automatically dock with the ISS without the need of input from the crew on board, using a suite of sensors and cameras. Though, the passengers can take over the process if necessary with the Crew Dragon’s touchscreen controls.

“Excellent job, right down the center,” Hopkins, the commander of the mission, said after docking. “SpaceX and NASA, congratulations. This is a new era of operational flights to the International Space Station from the Florida coast.” Noguchi added his thoughts in Japanese, finishing with a phrase in English: “All for one; Crew-1 for all.”

Now docked with the ISS, they crew will remain inside the Crew Dragon for the next hour or so as the crew already on board the space station checks for any leaks coming from the Crew Dragon. They’ll then work to open the hatch of the spacecraft and welcome the newbies on board the station. The four will join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who have been living on the ISS since mid-October.

The Crew-1 team is slated to stay on board the space station for the next six months, eventually returning to Earth in the Crew Dragon in spring of 2021. It’s a long-term trip that future crews of four will do every six months or so on the Crew Dragon, helping to keep the space station staffed continuously for NASA. In fact, just before the Crew-1 astronauts leave, a new crew of four will arrive inside another SpaceX capsule — on a mission aptly named Crew-2.

Photo by Loren Grush / The Verge

Carrying groups of four to space a couple times a year is exactly what the Crew Dragon was built for, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The idea was to task private companies with building and operating the hardware to get NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. After six years of development, SpaceX finally flew its first human passengers on the Crew Dragon in May, sending NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station. That flight was really considered a test, while this latest mission is considered the first “operational” mission of the Crew Dragon.

While that’s a notable achievement, this mission is passing many other key milestones, too. This is the first time that one of NASA’s international partners, Noguchi from Japan, has flown on a private US spacecraft to orbit. Walker is now the first woman to fly on the private Crew Dragon. And Glover’s arrival makes him the first Black crew member on board the International Space Station. Other Black astronauts have visited the space station before, but Glover will be the first to stay long term on the orbiting lab.

This is also the first time that seven people will live for months together on board the ISS. For much of the last decade, NASA has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsule to get the agency’s astronauts to the space station — a vehicle that only carries crews of three at a time. That’s led to mostly six-person crews staying on board the ISS at once. But with the Crew Dragon’s fourth seat, now there will be an extra crew member on the station, which NASA hopes will lead to more work getting done over the next six months.

If all goes to plan, we should be seeing lots of Dragon capsules in orbit for a while. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell noted after yesterday’s launch that the company will be flying roughly seven Dragon missions over the next 18 months. Those flights will include cargo missions along with crewed missions, as SpaceX uses the same type of Dragon to fly both types of flights. In fact, SpaceX has a cargo mission coming up in December, which means there should be two Dragon capsules docked with the ISS at the same time soon. “This mission represents the initiation of a Dragon in orbit continuously, knocking on wood and certainly is really the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight,” Shotwell said.

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