By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – Four astronauts, three from NASA and one from the European Space Agency, arrived at the International Space Station on Thursday and docked their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with the orbiting laboratory to begin a six-month science mission.
The rendezvous came about 21 hours after the team and its capsule were launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday night, following a string of weather delays that postponed the liftoff for a week and a half.
The docking took place about 6:30 p.m. EST (2330 GMT) while the Crew Dragon vehicle, dubbed Endurance, and the space station were flying about 260 miles (420 km) above the eastern Caribbean Sea, according to NASA.
The Endurance crew consists of three American NASA astronauts – flight commander Raja Chari, 44, mission pilot Tom Marshburn, 61, and mission specialist Kayla Barron, 34 – as well as German astronaut Matthias Maurer, 51, a mission specialist from the European Space Agency.
On arrival, the crew took inventory, conducted standard leak checks and pressurized the space between the spacecraft in preparation for opening the hatch to the space station about two hours later.
A live NASA video feed from the station showed the new arrivals floating headfirst through a padded passageway from their capsule into the orbiting outpost.
They were welcomed aboard with hugs from the three current space station occupants – Russian cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Oleg Novitskiy and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who shared a Soyuz flight with his Roscosmos crewmates to the complex.
Endeavor’s second-in-command, Marshburn – a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon – has logged two previous spaceflights to the space station and four spacewalks.
Maurer, a materials science engineer, was making his debut spaceflight, as were Chari, a U.S. Air Force combat jet and test pilot, and Barron, a U.S. Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer. Shortly after coming aboard, Marshburn pinned astronaut wings to the collars of his three rookie colleagues amid handshakes and smiles.
Both Chari and Barron also are among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade, over a half century after the Apollo lunar program ended.
“I think we all loved the ride up here,” Chari said during brief remarks in a welcoming ceremony webcast from the station. “It was way smoother than we could have imagined.”
The SpaceX Dragon also delivered more than 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of hardware and research equipment, NASA said.
The crew arriving on Thursday was officially designated “Crew 3” – the third full-fledged “operational” crew that NASA and SpaceX have flown together to the space station after a two-astronaut test run in May 2020.
“Crew 2” returned safely to Earth from the space station on Monday with a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida that capped a record 199 days in orbit.
SpaceX, the rocket company formed in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc, has logged a total of 15 human spaceflights in 17 months, including its astro-tourism launch in September of the first all-civilian crew sent to Earth orbit without professional astronauts.
The space station, spanning the size of an American football field end to end, has been continuously occupied since November 2000, operated by an international partnership of five space agencies from 15 countries.
An international crew of at least seven people typically lives and works aboard the platform while traveling 5 miles (8 km) per second, orbiting Earth about every 90 minutes.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)