SpaceX’s first full astronaut crew successfully maneuvered its Crew Dragon spaceship to a new port on the International Space Station on Monday. It was the first time the vehicle had attempted the maneuver.
Called a port relocation, the process required the spaceship to back away from the ISS port where it had been since it arrived at the orbiting laboratory in November, then fly to a different, space-facing port, and dock there instead. Russian Soyuz vehicles have conducted port-relocation maneuvers 15 times in the past, but no astronauts had ever done it in a commercial spacecraft before.
The spaceship reshuffling cleared the way for SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon capsule to arrive at the ISS. That mission, called Crew-2, is set to launch on April 22, bringing four more astronauts to the space station.
The four astronauts on the mission that’s currently in orbit, Crew-1, are set to return to Earth about five days after Crew-2 arrives. In the overlap time, there will be two Crew Dragons attached to the ISS – and a crowded house of 11 people in space.
Now that NASA is commissioning regular astronaut flights from both SpaceX and Russia’s Soyuz launch system, the ISS is expected to be more crowded on a regular basis. Future Crew Dragons will likely need to switch ports, too, especially if Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship joins the mix later this year. SpaceX and Boeing both developed their spaceships through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition meant to spur the development of commercial alternatives to Soyuz.
“The space station has become the spaceport we want it to be, with vehicles flying to it and returning science and payloads and doing amazing things on orbit,” Kathy Leuders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a March press briefing.
Watch the Crew Dragon switch parking spots
In preparation for port relocation, the Crew-1 astronauts – NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi – changed into their spacesuits early Monday morning. Spacesuits are required for docking and undocking maneuvers, in case anything goes wrong and the spaceship’s cabin is compromised.
SpaceX also had a recovery ship stationed near splashdown sites in the Atlantic Ocean, in case the Crew Dragon had to deorbit and plunge back to Earth.
But everything seemed to go smoothly. The astronauts climbed aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, which they’ve named “Resilience,” checked for air-pressure leaks, then instructed the spaceship to begin the fully automated maneuver. The hooks keeping Resilience attached to the space station’s forward port retracted at 6:30 a.m. ET, undocking the spaceship from the ISS. The vehicle then fired its thrusters to back away.
Over the next 30 minutes, while circling the Earth at about 5 miles per second, Resilience moved above the ISS and aligned itself with the station’s space-facing zenith port. It docked there at 7:08 a.m. ET.
NASA broadcast the maneuver in the video below. Undocking starts at about 30:45.
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and her Russian colleagues, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, also performed their own port relocation on March 19. They moved their Soyuz spaceship from the Earth-facing port of the Russian module on the ISS to its space-facing port. That leaves the former open for the next Soyuz spaceship to bring up three more astronauts on April 9.
Unlike Crew Dragon, however, Soyuz has to be maneuvered manually.
After Crew-1 returns to Earth, an uncrewed Cargo Dragon spaceship carrying new solar panels for the ISS is set to take its place on the zenith port.
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