SpaceX Makes History: Dragon 2 Lets Astronauts From America Board ISS

May 31, 2020, 1:25 PM EDT: Astronauts Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley (far right) wave after boarding the International Space Station (ISS) after having been ferried there by the SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle under NASA's DM-2 test mission. The boarding marks a historic occasion in American aerospace history as it resumes astronaut access to the ISS from U.S. soil. (Image: NASA/SpaceX)

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At 1:25 PM EDT today, SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully delivered astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station and re-opened access to space through locally manufactured spacecraft in America. The two veteran astronauts – one of whom also flew the last Space Shuttle Mission in 2008, were tasked to evaluate the Dragon manned vehicle's performance through checking the spacecraft's maneuverability, communication, flight, thrust, docking and other parameters.

The docking and subsequently entry inside the space station marks complete one half of the Dragon 2 vehicle's DM-2 testing mission. Since SpaceX has designed its spacecraft for re-entering Earth for successfully delivering crew back to NASA headquarters, once both astronauts depart from the ISS on the vehicle, the second phase of the current mission will begin.

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SpaceX Delivers Astronauts To International Space Station (ISS) Via Its Dragon 2 Manned Spacecraft As Part of NASA's DM-2 Test Mission

Following the Falcon 9's liftoff yesterday, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley performed a series of critical tests on the Dragon 2 spacecraft which including the far-field manual flight and local vertical, local horizontal tests intended to evaluate the spacecraft's navigation and maneuverability at a time when it was in an elliptical orbit with the ISS.

After the tests had finished, the vehicle then raised its orbit to get closer to the ISS and allow for docking procedures to be initiated. The orbit rise was preceded by a series of communications checks, with the parameter becoming even more important earlier in the day today after the DRagon successfully docked with the ISS.

12:13 PM EDT, May 31:  NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy who is commanding the Expedition 63 above the International Space Station (ISS) configuring the cameras for the station's hatch opening to allow astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to board. The ISS's standard thrusters and gyros have now taken over again following an earlier change, and Dragon 2 is utilizing station power and communicating continuously with the ISS. (Image: NASA)

Once the first phase of tests was over, both astronauts interacted with mission control centers after doffing off their custom-designed spacesuits. The Dragon 2, owing to its heritage design as a cargo supply vehicle for the ISS, is capable of navigating towards its destination autonomously and perform maneuvers using the Super Draco thrusters on board. The Dragon uses twelve of these Inconel thrusters to enable the spacecraft's launch abort and maneuvering capabilities.

SpaceX has configured the spacecraft to deliver seven astronauts to the ISS – a design aspect that brings down cost-per-seat down significantly down when compared to the Russian Soyuz crew delivery system. This, in turn, brings down the cost of access to space and ties in neatly with some of the broader NASA objectives of growing the low earth orbit (LEO) economy.

SpaceX's Dragon 2 approaching the International Space Station (ISS) for docking earlier today. (Image: NASA TV)

One way through which the space agency plans to achieve this is by allowing private enterprises to send their representatives aboard the ISS to conduct commercial activities. Authorized commercial activities on the space station right now cover R&D activities for NASA and ISS. In the future, this scope will increase to cover manufacturing and other development activities that require specific access to microgravity – access that can currently only be obtained on the ISS, with NASA striving to increase this by building a cis-lunar gateway in the Moon's orbit. To that end, SpaceX has already won a contract from NASA for delivering cargo to the Lunar Gateway.

After spending time onboard the ISS, the two astronauts will return to Earth. The Dragon 2 vehicle is intended to become the backbone of NASA commercial crew efforts outlined above, especially as aerospace giant Boeing continues to develop its Starliner crew delivery vehicle. All hatches of the Dragon vehicle were open at 1:02 PM EDT today, overshooting NASA's estimate of hatch open by 12:45 PM by 17 minutes. The spacecraft securely docked to the ISS' Harmony (Node 2) utility hub, being the first to do so in nine years.

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SpaceX currently has four spacecraft in its inventory, and future missions to the ISS on the Dragon 2 will not be flown on the DM-2 test vehicle. As astronauts Behnken and Hurley board the ISS, four other spacecraft are also docked with the space station that some estimate is worth $150 billion.

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