A SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts has docked at the International Space Station (ISS), in the first crewed mission on a privately built spacecraft purchased by NASA.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience by its crew of three Americans and one Japanese astronaut, docked at 11:01pm EST (04:01GMT), 27 hours after launching atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The space station, an orbital laboratory about 400 kilometres (250 miles) above the Earth, will be their home for the next six months when they will be replaced by another group of astronauts on a Crew Dragon capsule. The rotation will continue until Boeing joins the programme with its own spacecraft late next year.
The Resilience crew includes Crew Dragon commander Mike Hopkins and two fellow NASA astronauts: Mission pilot Victor Glover and physicist Shannon Walker. They are joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who is on his third trip to space after previously flying on the US shuttle in 2005 and Soyuz in 2009.
Glover is the first African American to take part in such a long mission. A space newcomer, Glover was presented his gold astronaut pin on Monday.
Another US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are already on board the space station from a previous mission.
“Welcome to the ISS. We can’t wait to have you on board,” said Kate Rubins, the US astronaut already at the space station.
This is the second astronaut mission for SpaceX. But it is the first time billionaire Elon Musk’s company has been able to send a crew for a full half-year stay at the station. The two-pilot test flight earlier this year lasted two months.
Before receiving its flight certification from NASA last week, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon had been under development for roughly a decade under a public-private NASA programme started in 2011 to revive the agency’s human spaceflight capability.
For Sunday’s launch, NASA kept guests to a minimum because of coronavirus, and Musk also had to stay away after tweeting that he “most likely” had an infection.
As they prepared for the space station linkup, the Dragon crew beamed down live window views of New Zealand and a brilliant blue, cloud-streaked Pacific 400km below.
“Looks amazing,” Mission Control radioed from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
“It looks amazing from up here, too,” Hopkins replied.