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 to maneuver.
Called a port transfer, the process required the spacecraft to return from the ISS port where it had been since arriving at that orbital laboratory in November, then fly to another, space-facing port and lay there instead. Russian Soyuz vehicles have conducted port relocation maneuvers 15 times before, but no astronaut had ever done so in a commercial spacecraft before.
The change of spacecraft paved the way for SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon capsule to arrive on the ISS. This mission, called Crew-2, is set to launch on April 22 and bring four more astronauts to the space station.
The four astronauts on the mission, which are currently in orbit, Crew-1, are ready to return to Earth about five days after Crew-2 arrives. During the overlap period, there will be two crew kites attached to the ISS – and a crowded house of 11 people in the room.
Now that NASA is ordering 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 members will also likely have to change ports, especially if Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft joins the mix later this year. SpaceX and Boeing both developed their spacecraft through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a competition designed to stimulate the development of commercial alternatives to Soyuz.
“The space station has become the spaceport we want it to be, with vehicles flying to it, returning science and payloads and doing amazing things in orbit,” Kathy Leuders, NASA’s Assistant Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said in a press briefing from March. .
See Crew Dragon change parking spaces
In preparation for the move, the Crew-1 astronauts – NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi – switched to their spacesuits early Monday morning. Spacesuits are needed to dock and release maneuvers if something goes wrong and the spaceship’s cabin is compromised.
SpaceX also had a recovery ship stationed near splashdown sites in the Atlantic, in case the crew kite should deorbit and jump back to Earth.
But everything seemed to go smoothly. The astronauts climbed aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, which they have called “Resistance”, checked for air pressure leaks and then instructed the spacecraft to start the fully automatic maneuver. The hooks, which hold resilience attached to the front gate of the space station, were retracted at 6:30 ET and free the spacecraft from the ISS. The vehicle then fired its thrusters to return.
Over the next 30 minutes as they circulated the earth about 5 miles per second, Resilience moved across the ISS and aligned itself with the station’s space-facing zenith port. It arrived there at 07:08 ET.
NASA released the maneuver in the video below. Docking starts around 30:45.
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and her Russian counterparts, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, also carried out their own port relocation on March 19th. They moved their Soyuz spacecraft from the ground-facing port of the Russian module on the ISS to its space-facing port. That leaves the former open for the next Soyuz spacecraft to train three more astronauts on April 9th.
Unlike the Crew Dragon, however, the Soyuz must be maneuvered manually.
After Crew-1 returns to Earth, an unmanned Cargo Dragon spaceship carrying new solar panels to the ISS is set to take its place in the Zenith Harbor.