SpaceX Dragon capsule docks with space station

Dragon capsuleImage copyright NASA
Image caption The Dragon capsule, with its nose cone lifted, ready to make the docking

The demonstration flight of America’s new astronaut capsule has successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS).

The Dragon vehicle, launched by California’s SpaceX company on Saturday, made the attachment autonomously.

It is the latest in a series of tests the capsule must pass in order to get approval from Nasa to transport people.

All this particular mission is carrying is a test dummy and 90kg of supplies.

The docking occurred just before 11:00 GMT, slightly head of schedule.

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Media captionWatch the Dragon capsule launch to orbit atop a Falcon rocket

The Dragon approached the 400km-high (250 miles) station from the front and used its computers and sensors to guide itself in.

Astronauts aboard the ISS watched closely on HD cameras to make sure the capsule performed as planned, and ready to intervene if it did not.

The capsule advanced on the station slowly, stepping through a series of planned waypoints.

US astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques were overseeing events from the station’s big bay window, or Cupola. They had the facility to command the Dragon to hold, retreat and even abort a docking.

After some rehearsals, the “go” was given to dock.

Attachment was made to a new type of mating adaptor on the ISS’s Harmony module.

The procedure is a step up for SpaceX because the cargo ships it normally sends to the lab have to be grappled by a robotic arm and pulled into a berthing position. The freighters do not have the sophistication to dock themselves.

The Dragon capsule is due to stay at the ISS until Friday when it will detach and begin the journey back to Earth.

This is the phase of the mission that SpaceX founder Elon Musk says worries him the most – the fiery, high-speed descent through the atmosphere.

The Dragon’s backshell, or heatshield, has a somewhat irregular shape and that could lead to temperature variations across the base of the capsule at hypersonic speeds.

“It should be fine, but that’ll be a thing to make sure it works on re-entry,” said Mr Musk.

“Everything we know so far is looking positive. Unless something goes wrong I should think we’ll be flying (people) this year; this summer, hopefully.”

Image copyright Getty Images/NASA
Image caption Elon Musk with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken who are scheduled to make the first crewed flight

The American space agency wants to contract out crew transport to SpaceX.

Whereas in the past, Nasa engineers would have top-down control of all aspects of vehicle design and the agency would own and operate the hardware – the relationship with industry has been put on a completely new footing.

Today, Nasa sets broad requirements and industry is given plenty of latitude in how it meets those demands.

Agency officials still check off every step, but the approach is regarded as more efficient.

Image copyright NASA
Image caption Two docking views: What Dragon saw on approach (L) and what the ISS saw (R)

Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said it was a new era where “we are looking forward to be being one customer, as an agency and as a country.

“We’re looking forward to being one customer of many customers in a robust commercial market place in low-Earth orbit, so we can drive down costs and increase access in ways that historically have not been possible.”

Nasa is also working with Boeing on crew transport. The company has developed a capsule of its own called the Starliner. This will have its equivalent demo flight in the next couple of months.

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