By autonomously docking at the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has passed a crucial test as the company prepares to start flying US astronauts to the ISS later this year.
The news: After taking off from Florida at 2:49 a.m. EST on Saturday, the capsule made initial contact with the ISS at 5:51 a.m. EST yesterday. A full, secure docking was confirmed just a few minutes later. The capsule used its onboard computer and sensors to complete the whole process autonomously. Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and US astronaut Anne McClain watched from the ISS, with the option to tell the capsule to hold, retreat, or even abort the process. Once it had docked, McClain and Saint-Jacques entered the capsule, sending back a video with the sensor-filled dummy (named Ripley) and stuffed Earth toy sent up as part of the test. You can watch it here.
On Twitter, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine hailed the successful launch and docking: “A new generation of space flight starts now with the arrival of @SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to the @Space_Station. Congratulations to all for this historic achievement getting us closer to flying American Astronauts on American rockets. #LaunchAmerica”
What’s next: The craft is scheduled to head home on Friday, March 8, landing off the coast of Florida. Data obtained from this mission will help determine whether the crew module is ready to launch with people on board, and it will help inform any final tweaks to the system.
Why it matters: As Bridenstine’s tweet implied, NASA has been unable to launch astronauts from US soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, so it has had to rely on Russian rockets. This test is part of its preparations to resume sending US astronauts from Florida. The aim is for the first crewed SpaceX flight to the ISS to take place in July, but delays are possible.
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