SpaceX Dragon capsule docks with International Space Station

SpaceX's new crew capsule has arrived at the International Space Station, acing its second milestone in just over a day.

No one was aboard the Dragon capsule launched Saturday on its first test flight, only a dummy. But that quickly changed once the hatch swung open and the space station astronauts floated inside.

The Dragon is the first American-made, designed-for-crew spacecraft to pull up to the station in eight years. The three station astronauts had front-row seats as the sleek, white capsule neatly docked, a little early no less. TV cameras on Dragon as well as the station provided stunning views of one another throughout the rendezvous.

Just two hours after the Dragon's grand entrance, the station crew entered to take air samples. The astronauts wore oxygen masks and hoods until getting the all-clear.

If the six-day demo goes well, SpaceX could launch two astronauts laster this year under NASA's commercial crew programme. Both astronauts - Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken - were at SpaceX Mission Control in southern California, observing all the action. They rushed there from Florida after watching the Dragon rocket into orbit early Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Dragon Ripley
The capsule's only passenger was a dummy named Ripley. Photo credit: APTN

While SpaceX has sent plenty of cargo Dragons to the space station, crew Dragon is a different beast. It docked autonomously under the station astronauts' watchful eyes, instead of relying on the station's robot arm for berthing. The capsule's nose cap was wide open like a dragon's mouth, to expose the docking mechanism.

Mr Behnken said that's the way it should work when he and Mr Hurley are on board; they may push a button or two and will have the ability to intervene, if necessary.

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

SpaceX employees at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, cheered and applauded as crew Dragon pulled up and docked at the orbiting lab, nearly 400km above the Pacific, north of New Zealand. They burst into applause again, several minutes later, when the Dragon's latches were tightly secured.

The capsule's lone passenger for launch - a mannequin wearing a white SpaceX spacesuit - remained strapped into its seat as the station's US, Canadian and Russian crew removed supplies. The test dummy - or Smarty as SpaceX likes to call it, given all the instrumentation - is named Ripley after the lead character in the science-fiction Alien films.

Dragon will remain at the space station until Friday, when it undocks and aims for a splashdown in the Atlantic, a couple hundred miles off the Florida coast.

SpaceX boss Elon Musk.
SpaceX boss Elon Musk. Photo credit: Getty

Like Ripley, the capsule is rigged with sensors to measure noise, vibration and stresses, and to monitor the life-support, propulsion and other critical systems throughout the flight.

SpaceX aims to launch Mr Behnken and Mr Hurley as early as July.

Next up, though, should be Boeing, NASA's other commercial crew provider. Boeing is looking to launch its Starliner capsule without a crew as early as April and with a crew possibly in August.

NASA is paying the two private companies US$8 billion to build and operate the capsules for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

Astronauts have been stuck riding Russian rockets ever since NASA's space shuttle programme ended in 2011. Russian Soyuz seats go for up to US$82 million apiece.

ATPN