The United States is closer to bringing astronauts to the International Space Station. 27 hours after its launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ship has successfully coupled to the ISS.
His only crew is a mannequin named Ripley and a teddy from Earth that floats freely on the ship, but this first test flight is a breakthrough for NASA’s commercial crew program, which aims to find a replacement for the space shuttle (retired in 2011).
The images of the maneuver are impressive, especially if we compare the aesthetics of the Dragon 2 ship with the Soyuz that normally transport astronauts. Of course, it is not their aesthetics, but their security, that most concerned those involved.
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, did not approve NASA’s coupling plans until Wednesday of last week, two days before the launch of Crew Dragon. That the ship did not have a backup coupling system or that could damage the ISS during the maneuver, putting at risk the lives of three people, were the main concerns.
SpaceX had already sent cargo ships to the ISS, but all had been captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm during the docking maneuver. Crew Dragon, on the other hand, needs to be coupled autonomously to the space station for the safety of its future crew.
The ship was coupled without problems to the docking port of the ISS at 10:51 UTC on Sunday. Two and a half hours later, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques opened the hatch and became the first person to enter a Dragon Crew in orbit.
The Russian Oleg Kononenko came in second to take samples of the air from the capsule before they could remove their oxygen masks. Finally, the American Anne McClain visited Crew Dragon and was recorded with Ripley and the stuffed animal.
In addition to the dolls, the Dragon ship carried 204 kilograms of cargo for the International Space Station.
Crew Dragon will return to Earth on March 8 for a final test before being able to transport people: its splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. According to the BBC, re-entry is the Earth is the part of the process that most concerns Elon Musk, although he is optimistic. “Unless something goes wrong, I think we’ll be flying with people this year; this summer”.
In addition to SpaceX, Boeing is working on its own CST-100 Starliner manned spacecraft for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The company expects to conduct an unmanned test this year.