Published: Mon, March 04, 2019
Science | By Celia Watts

SpaceX crew capsule docks at the International Space Station

SpaceX crew capsule docks at the International Space Station

Not since the retirement of the shuttles in 2011 has America been able to put humans in orbit. The next one coming up will have its own two-man crew.

USA and European astronauts, including Britain's Tim Peake, have begun their journey into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Kazakhstan. At 140 meters, NASA astronaut Anne McClain commanded Dragon to back away from the station, as part of a test of the spacecraft's contingency abilities. The astronauts wore oxygen masks and hoods until getting the all-clear.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at a post-launch press conference Saturday that the mission is the "culmination of a long dream for a lot of people at SpaceX".

They rushed there from Florida after watching the Dragon rocket into orbit early Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Behnken, interviewed on NASA TV after the docking, said it was "super exciting" to see the spacecraft successfully dock to station. "Just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight coming up here".

For employees of SpaceX-who have worked to bring Crew Dragon to fruition for most of the last decade-Saturday morning's launch proved cathartic. The big first is whether the capsule's autonomous systems can maneuver and dock with the station. "We may push a button or two to demonstrate that we have the capability to intervene if we need to, but the vehicle is pretty much going to do the work autonomously, just like it did today".

The docking port itself is new and has never been used. They burst into applause again, several minutes later, when the Dragon's latches were tightly secured. The capsule will deliver its payload of supplies and remain in place until March 8. The company sent the spacecraft for its first unmanned test mission with a dummy, named Ripley, on board.

Every successful stage of the mission-whose planning suffered three-year delays-triggered cheers at the firm's headquarters and at Kennedy Space Center.

Ripley and the capsule are rigged with sensors to measure noise, vibration and stresses and monitor the life-support, propulsion and other critical systems.

According to the latest data, Crew Dragon will perform its first manned test mission in July.

"We instrumented the crap out of that vehicle", said Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew program.

Boeing's Starliner is slated to fly its first demo mission without a crew no earlier than April.

It will spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost, before making a retro-style splashdown in the Atlantic next Friday - all vital training for the next space demo, possibly this summer, when two astronauts strap in. The US space agency has been paying Russian Federation roughly $81 million for a single seat on the Soyuz spaceship every time it needs to ferry an astronaut to or from the ISS.

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