SpaceX Dragon Successfully Docks at ISS Without Aid of Robot Arm

The NASA Commercial Crew Program is one step closer to sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) today. After years of development and months of planning for this specific launch, the SpaceX crewed Dragon capsule (AKA Dragon II) successfully completed a demo flight to dock with the ISS. There was no one on-board other than a test dummy, but this serves as an effective proof of concept for the new spacecraft design.

NASA has relied on the Russian Soyuz launch system to get astronauts to the ISS ever since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011. The agency spends about $20 million for each seat on the Soyuz, and it’s running out of pre-booked seats. NASA has until the end of this year to get the Commercial Crew Program sorted out, but it looks like we’re finally in the home stretch after numerous delays.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off for “Demo-1” in the wee hours of Saturday (March 2). The first stage separated from the Dragon capsule after several minutes, descending for a perfect landing on the SpaceX drone ship. That marked the 35th consecutive successful landing of the first stage booster. The Dragon II made its way under remote control to the ISS, arriving on Sunday.

SpaceX and NASA report that Dragon made its first ever fully autonomous docking with the ISS. The capsule rendezvoused with the station and guided itself in to dock without the aid of the station’s robotic arm. That’s no simple feat, as anyone who has played Kerbal Space Program can tell you. In the past, the Dragon cargo missions relied on the robot arm to bring the capsule in for final docking.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that SpaceX will be ready for its first astronaut transport mission as soon as this summer. First, the Dragon capsule needs to prove it can get back to Earth. This is decidedly less complex than getting to the ISS. In a few days, the spacecraft will disengage from the station and descend into the atmosphere for a parachute splashdown in the ocean.

Boeing is also planning to have its crewed spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, up and running soon, but a fuel leak last year pushed back its testing plans. It should have a demonstration launch in the coming months. Currently, SpaceX is on track to be the first private spaceflight company to send astronauts to the ISS.

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