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SpaceX Crew Dragon successfully docks at space station

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The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts – Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley – successfully docked at the International Space Station yesterday.

Behnken and Hurley made history on Saturday as they became the first Americans to launch on an American rocket from American soil at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, to the International Space Station in nearly a decade.

In a statement, NASA says their successful docking to the station completed many of the test objectives of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, and the rest will be completed as the spacecraft operates as part of the space station, then undocks and descends for a parachute landing in the Atlantic Ocean this summer.

“Today, a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“I thank and congratulate Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, and the SpaceX and NASA teams for this significant achievement for the United States. The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars.”

Known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, the mission is an end-to-end test flight to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations.

This is South African-born Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard, which will pave the way for its certification for regular crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme.

“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” says Musk, chief engineer at SpaceX. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen.

“You can look at this as the results of a hundred thousand people roughly when you add up all the suppliers and everyone working incredibly hard to make this day happen.”

NASA says the programme demonstrates its commitment to investing in commercial companies through public-private partnerships and builds on the success of American companies, including SpaceX, already delivering cargo to the space station.

“It’s difficult to put into words how proud I am of the people who got us here today,” says Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew programme manager.

“When I think about all of the challenges overcome – from design and testing, to paper reviews, to working from home during a pandemic and balancing family demands with this critical mission – I am simply amazed at what the NASA and SpaceX teams have accomplished together.”

SpaceX controlled the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy’s Launch Control Centre Firing Room 4, the former space shuttle control room, which SpaceX has leased as its primary launch control centre.

Upon conclusion of the mission, Crew Dragon will autonomously undock with the two astronauts onboard the spacecraft and depart the space station. After jettisoning the trunk and conducting its de-orbit burn, which lasts approximately 12 minutes, Dragon will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

According to SpaceX, upon splashdown just off Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Dragon and the astronauts will be quickly recovered by SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery vessel and returned to Cape Canaveral.

In preparation for Demo-2, SpaceX has completed a number of major milestones for NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme. In March 2019, SpaceX completed Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission to and from the International Space Station — an end-to-end test flight of Crew Dragon without NASA astronauts onboard — making Dragon the first American spacecraft to autonomously dock with the International Space Station and safely return to Earth.

In January, SpaceX successfully completed an in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities. This test, which did not have NASA astronauts onboard the spacecraft, demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent.

Dragon safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and teams successfully recovered the spacecraft onto SpaceX’s recovery vessel.

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