NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday aboard the first commercially built and operated American spacecraft to carry humans to orbit, opening a new era in human spaceflight.
The pair of astronauts docked to the space station’s Harmony module at 10:16 a.m. EDT Sunday as the microgravity laboratory flew 262 miles above the border northern China and Mongolia.
Behnken and Hurley, the first astronauts to fly to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to the station, were welcomed as crew members of Expedition 63 by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
“The whole world saw this mission, and we are so, so proud of everything you’ve done for our country and, in fact, to inspire the world,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the crew from the floor of Mission Control in Houston. “This represents a transition in how we do spaceflight from the United States of America. NASA is not going to purchase, own and operate rockets and capsules the way we used to; we’re going to partner with commercial industry.
“This model is going to apply when we go to the Moon,” Bridenstine said. “ When we go to the Moon we’re going to land on the surface of the Moon with commercial landers. All of this is leading up to an amazing day where we have humans living and working for long periods of time on the surface of the Moon, and doing it with a purpose. And that purpose, of course, is to go to Mars.”
The docking followed the first successful launch of Crew Dragon with astronauts on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space in Florida, the same launch pad used for the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission.
After reaching orbit, Behnken and Hurley named their Crew Dragon spacecraft “Endeavour” as a tribute to the first space shuttle each astronaut had flown aboard. Endeavour also flew the penultimate mission of the Space Shuttle Program, launching in May 2011 from the same pad.
“Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit, and we were definitely driving or riding a Dragon all the way up,” Behnken said during the welcoming ceremony inside the space station’s Harmony module. “While we’re on-board the space station with a new spacecraft, we do hope to put her through her paces. So the good ship Endeavour is going to get a lot of checkout over the next week or two here, and hopefully we’ll be able to declare her operational.”
“It’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business and we’re just really glad to be onboard this magnificent complex. We’re just happy to be here, and Chris is going to put us work,” Hurley added. “We had a couple of opportunities to take it (Dragon) out for a spin so to speak, once after we got into orbit last night and today about 20 minutes before we docked. My compliments to the folks back at Hawthorne and SpaceX on how it flew. We couldn’t be happier about the performance of the vehicle.”
Cassidy, Hurley and Behnken will participate in a live NASA Television crew news conference from orbit on Monday, June 1, beginning at 11:15 a.m. on NASA TV and the agency’s website.
This flight, known as NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2, is an end-to-end test to validate the SpaceX crew transportation system, including launch, in-orbit, docking and landing operations. This is SpaceX’s second spaceflight test of its Crew Dragon and its first test with astronauts aboard, and will pave the way for its certification for regular crew flights to the station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
The crew will remain busy as they continue to test and demonstrate the capabilities of Dragon Endeavour while it is docked to the space station. The Crew Dragon being used for this flight test can stay in orbit about 110 days, and the specific mission duration will be determined once on station based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch. The operational Crew Dragon spacecraft will be capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days as a NASA requirement.
At the end of the mission, Behnken and Hurley will board the spacecraft, which will autonomously undock, depart the space station and returns to Earth through a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, where the SpaceX recovery ship crew will pick up the crew and return them to Cape Canaveral.
Hurley is the spacecraft commander for Demo-2, responsible for activities such as launch, landing and recovery. He was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and has completed two spaceflights. Hurley served as pilot and lead robotics operator for both STS‐127 in July 2009 and STS‐135, the final space shuttle mission, in July 2011.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with SpaceX and Boeing to design, build, test and operate safe, reliable and cost-effective human transportation systems to low-Earth orbit. Both companies are focused on test missions, including abort system demonstrations and crew flight tests, ahead of regularly flying crew missions to the space station. Both companies’ crewed flights will be the first times in history NASA has sent astronauts to space on systems owned, built, tested and operated by private companies.