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SpaceX's historic Demo-2 delivers NASA astronauts to ISS

After a 19-hour ride, two NASA astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon capsule reached the International Space Station 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon is shown here minutes before docking with the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon is shown here minutes before docking with the International Space Station.

NASA; Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

SpaceX's Crew Dragon successfully reached the International Space Station at 7:16 a.m. PT Sunday, delivering NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on the first US spaceflight to make the journey in nine years. They boarded the ISS at 10:22 a.m. PT.

The historic event was put on hold last week when weather scrubbed NASA and SpaceX's first attempt to launch astronauts to the ISS. The second attempt on Saturday got off the ground in spectacular, fiery fashion, propelling the astronauts into low Earth orbit. A series of rocket burns over the next 19 hours lifted Crew Dragon to the space station, and it docked 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

The Crew Dragon approached the ISS slowly at less than a meter per second under automatic guidance, releasing puffs of gas to control its orientation and movement before docking and connecting power. You can see the event unfold on NASA's live video stream. After connecting communications, performing tests and pressurizing the vestibule area on the ISS where the Crew Dragon connected, the astronauts climbed out of the SpaceX craft and onto the space station for a welcome ceremony.

The mission, called Demo-2, has had to overcome its fair share of setbacks. Not only that, but in the midst of a global pandemic, it somehow kept to its launch schedule. Rocket launches and space missions often elicit a whole range of emotions, but this one feels extra special -- and the anticipation for SpaceX's maiden crewed voyage was at an all-time high. 

We've rounded up everything you need to know about Demo-2, including how to watch the Crew Dragon docking and astronaut arrival at the ISS, what the mission is all about and the various livestreams you can tune in to if you want to follow along. 

What is Demo-2? 

Demo-2 is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which involves two commercial spaceflight companies, SpaceX and Boeing, building and launching crew capsules designed to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. 

SpaceX has a history of cargo and payload launches, but this was the company's first time sending humans off this rock. 

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When: SpaceX's Crew Dragon successfully launched on Saturday, May 30 at 12:22 p.m. PT. The ISS docking procedure began at 7:16 a.m. PT on Sunday as the capsule and space station orbited above Mongolia and China. At 10:22 a.m. PT, Behnken and Hurley boarded the ISS.

Where: The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The historic launch pad has previously hosted Apollo and space shuttle missions. The capsule is currently in orbit during a 19-hour flight to meet up with the ISS.

Why: NASA's Commercial Crew Program is aimed at ending the US reliance on Russian spacecraft for ferrying astronauts to the ISS. NASA has been buying seats on Soyuz capsules since the end of the shuttle program.

This is also part of a broader NASA push for commercial partnerships. "By encouraging industry to provide human transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit, NASA can expand its focus on building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions," the space agency said

The Crew Dragon capsule arrived at the launch site in February 2020 for final preparations.

NASA

The spacecraft: The SpaceX Crew Dragon is the human transportation version of the Dragon 2 capsule that has been used to carry cargo to the ISS. Only two astronauts are on board for Demo-2, but the capsule can be configured to carry up to seven passengers.

The rocket: SpaceX's proven Falcon 9 rocket escorted Crew Dragon through the launch. NASA's iconic throwback "worm" logo is emblazoned on the side of the rocket. Falcon 9s have successfully launched dozens of SpaceX missions.

The Falcon 9 booster is reusable and successfully landed on a SpaceX drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The crew: NASA assigned astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Crew Dragon back in 2018. Both have been to space on different shuttle missions, with Hurley flying on the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011. They are wearing spacesuits designed in-house by SpaceX.

The goal: If SpaceX passes muster during Demo-2, then NASA will certify Crew Dragon for regular flights back and forth to the ISS. The space agency is already looking ahead to this outcome and has assigned astronauts to the first Crew Dragon operational mission, which could launch before the end of the year if all goes well.

How to watch the docking Sunday

NASA will stream the Crew Dragon docking and hatch opening on NASA TV. Although the docking finished at 7:16 a.m., the astronauts boarded the space station more than three hours later after routine tests and work properly connecting the spacecraft.

Crew Dragon docked nose-first to the ISS. You can try the procedure yourself with SpaceX's online docking simulator

Once Behnken and Hurley boarded the ISS, they were greeted with the traditional hug gauntlet by the current ISS crew of NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

Making history

NASA is viewing the SpaceX Demo-2 mission as the dawn of "a new era of human spaceflight."  

NASA awarded the original Commercial Crew Program contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 with an eye to launching astronauts in 2017. Delays are common during spacecraft development and both SpaceX and Boeing ran into their share of hiccups. Boeing is still working through a series of technical issues that cropped up during a test flight of its Starliner vehicle in late 2019.

SpaceX, however, successfully completed the Demo-1 uncrewed round trip to the ISS in early 2019 and a critical in-flight abort test at the beginning of the year, setting the stage for Demo-2. It's called Demo-2 because it's still, technically, a "demonstration" rather than a full-fledged space mission. It marks the final test for SpaceX and its Crew Dragon capsule and will allow Elon Musk's spaceflight company to achieve human-rated certification of its spacecraft. 

"For the first time in 9 years, we have now launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. I'm so proud of the NASA and SpaceX team for making this moment possible," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted after the launch on Saturday.

Meet the NASA astronauts  

Behnken and Hurley entered preflight quarantine on May 13. Prelaunch quarantines were already standard procedure prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but NASA will add some extra steps to the process. "Hurley and Behnken, as well as those in direct, close contact with the crew will be tested twice for the virus as a precaution," NASA said in a statement in May.   

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be SpaceX's first human passengers when they launch on the Demo- mission.

NASA

Bob Behnken: NASA selected Behnken, an experienced Air Force pilot, as an astronaut in 2000. He last visited space on a shuttle mission in 2010. He has spent 708 hours in space, with 37 of those taken up by spacewalks. 

Behnken tweeted on May 12 that he had to get approval from his young son before launch.

Doug Hurley: Hurley, a retired Marine, was also selected as an astronaut in 2000. A veteran of two space missions, he was last in orbit in 2011 on NASA's final shuttle mission. That adds some poetry to Hurley's assignment to Demo-2. He was one of the last astronauts to launch from US soil and will be one of the first to do it again. 

Hurley shared his own son's drawing of Crew Dragon in late April.

NASA has yet to decide exactly how long Behnken and Hurley will remain on the ISS. "They will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew," said NASA. The astronauts will return on Crew Dragon and splash down in the Atlantic where they will be greeted by a SpaceX recovery vessel. 

May 30 marked a major milestone in space history. It's not just about the patriotic overtones of launching American astronauts from American soil using an American rocket. 

SpaceX and NASA are set to pick up a dropped thread in human spaceflight, filling the void left by the retirement of the space shuttles. We are pretty good at sending robotic explorers to far-flung places in the solar system, but the stakes are always higher when human lives are involved. So far, so good.

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