Humans enter SpaceX Crew Dragon in space for the first time

The capsule is scheduled to reach the ISS by Sunday with a return to Earth next Friday. — AFP  File

The capsule is scheduled to reach the ISS by Sunday with a return to Earth next Friday. — AFP File

Demo-1 is the first test mission of a commercially built and operated American spacecraft and rocket designed for humans. In fact, NASA astronauts could be traveling on board in a Crew Dragon trial flight as early as July this year.

SpaceX is targeting Saturday, March 2 for launch of Crew Dragon's first demonstration mission from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

As part of Sunday's shakedown, the space station astronauts sent commands for Dragon to retreat and then move forward again, before the capsule closed in for good.

The white, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company under contract to NASA, closed in on the orbiting station almost 260 miles above the Pacific Ocean and, flying autonomously, linked up on its own, without the help of the robotic arm normally used to guide spacecraft into position. America's newest capsule for astronauts rocketed toward the International Space Station on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX.

The successful demonstration brings the USA one step closer to once again sending people into orbit without relying on Russian space vehicles, which have ferried American astronauts to the International Space Station since NASA retired its shuttles in 2011. She told a packed audience that she has taken to referring internally at SpaceX to the first two astronauts slated to fly on Crew Dragon as "the dads".

SpaceX has made 16 space station deliveries over the past seven years.

Enlarge / SpaceX founder Elon Musk shares a laugh with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, center, and Bob Behnken, in the launch control room at Kennedy Space Center Friday night.

A video grab from the Space X webcast transmission on March 2 showed a dummy named Ripley onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

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

While optimistic, NASA is hedging its bets and plans to buy two more Soyuz seats, one for use this fall and the other next spring, to ensure US astronauts will be aboard the space station through next year even if the commercial crew program runs into major problems and delays. The Starliner is now due to make its first uncrewed test flight no earlier than April, and its first crewed flight no earlier than August.

Shortly after liftoff, the Falcon 9's first stage came back to Earth, touching down on SpaceX's drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" which was ready and waiting off the Florida coast.

"Congratulations to all of the teams on a successful docking", Anne McClain, the NASA astronaut now on the station, said shortly after the spacecraft docked.

While Saturday's SpaceX test mission is a crucial step in the oft-delayed project, there are questions about whether NASA can achieve its 2019 flight goal of manned flight.

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