SpaceX has delivered two astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, following up a historic lift-off with an equally smooth docking in yet another first for Elon Musk’s company.
With test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken poised to take over manual control if necessary, the SpaceX Dragon capsule on Sunday pulled up to the station and docked automatically, no assistance needed.
The hatches swung open a few hours later, and the two Dragon riders floated into the orbiting lab and embraced the three station residents.
Unlike the SpaceX and NASA flight control rooms, where everyone was spaced well apart, there was no social distancing or masks needed in orbit since the new arrivals had been in quarantine for many weeks.
“The whole world saw this mission, and we are so, so proud of everything you have done for our country and, in fact, to inspire the world,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Mr Hurley credited SpaceX and added: “It’s great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business.”
It was the first time a privately built and owned spacecraft carried astronauts to the space station in its more than 20 years of existence.
NASA considers this the opening volley in a business revolution encircling Earth and eventually stretching to the moon and Mars.
The docking occurred barely 19 hours after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Saturday (local time) afternoon from Kennedy Space Center, the nation’s first astronaut launch to orbit from home soil in nearly a decade.
The achievement, years in the making, is expected to drive down launch costs so more people might be able to afford a ticket to space in the coming years.
Mr Behnken told the welcoming committee at NASA’s Johnson Space Center that the Dragon was “a slick vehicle” and said he was surprised at how rough the ride was on the latter part of ascent, compared with the space shuttle, which he and Hurley rode twice.
“Dragon was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit,” he said.
After lift-off, Musk told reporters that the capsule’s return will be more dangerous in some ways than its launch. Even so, getting the two astronauts safely to orbit and then the space station had everyone breathing huge sighs of relief.
“This is hopefully the first step on a journey toward a civilisation on Mars,” he said on Saturday night.