Commercial crew docks with International Space Station after smooth rendezvous

(CBS) — Four civilians in a chartered SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station early Saturday, kicking off the first NASA-sanctioned, commercial visit to the lab complex by a private company.

Launched Friday from the Kennedy Space Center, the Axiom-1 Crew Dragon — Endeavour — executed an automated 20-hour rendezvous, catching up with the space station and moving in for docking at the lab’s forward Harmony module at 8:29 a.m. EDT.

The linkup was delayed about 45 minutes because of a video configuration problem on the space station, but the Crew Dragon had no problems and the final push to docking was picture perfect.

“I hope you enjoyed the extra half orbit in Dragon, or at least found it memorable,” a SpaceX flight controller radioed. “Welcome to the International Space Station.”

After extended leak checks to verify an airtight structural seal, hatches were opened and the Axiom-1 crew members — retired astronaut and mission commander Michael Lopéz-Alegría, real estate executive Larry Connor, Canadian investor Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe — floated into the station.

Welcoming their new crewmates with hugs and handshakes were station commander Thomas Marshburn, Raja Chari, Kayla Barron and German astronaut Matthias Maurer, launched aboard another Crew Dragon last November. Also on hand: Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Medveev and Sergey Korsakov, who arrived at the outpost last month.

All 11 gathered in the Harmony module for a traditional “welcome aboard” ceremony.

“You guys look great,” radioed Mike Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space, the Houston-based company that paid for the mission. “The Dragon ride, looks like that sat with you well. … We’ve been talking about this history-making mission for a long time, so we’re going to stop talking about it now and just get on with it. So you guys have a great mission. We look forward to it.”

Connor said he was “thrilled and honored to be up here.”

“Thanks to SpaceX, phenomenal ride. Thanks to Axiom for making this dream come true. Thanks to NASA, thanks to all the crew. We’re here to experience this, but we understand there’s a responsibility, and the responsibility is for this first civilian crew to get it right.

“And that’s what we’re fully committed to. … It’s going to be a busy week of research for us, and I’m sure it’s going to fly by.”

Summed up Pathy: “Wow, it’s just amazing to be here. It’s hard to find the words, but it’s been an amazing journey.”

So far, Axiom Space has booked four Crew Dragon flights through SpaceX, launching the first mission, Ax-1, on Friday. It is the first fully commercial, non-government flight to the International Space Station.

Over the course of nearly 10 docked days, the Ax-1 crew plans to carry out 25 privately developed experiments, carry out technology demonstrations and Earth observation and participate in public outreach sessions. They are expected to undock on April 19 and return to an ocean splashdown, weather permitting.

For Axiom, the flight represents a major step toward the goal of launching multiple modules to the space station, starting in late 2024, to serve as a commercial research facility. When the ISS is retired at the end of the decade, Axiom plans to separate its linked modules to serve as a free-flying commercial space station.

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