A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying a retired astronaut, a wealthy adventurer and two Saudi astronauts caught up with the International Space Station on Monday, wrapping up an automated 15-hour rendezvous with a picture-perfect docking.
Catching up from behind and below, the spacecraft passed 1,300 feet below the lab complex, then looped up to a point directly above the forward Harmony module's space-facing port. From there, the craft moved in for docking at 9:12 a.m. EDT.
"It was a lovely ride ... it was the softest docking I've ever felt," Ax-2 commander Peggy Whitson radioed SpaceX flight controllers, referring to three earlier trips to the station aboard a space shuttle and Russian Soyuz ferry ships. "Very well done."
"We do aim for excellence," a controller replied. "And on behalf of SpaceX, it's been a pleasure working with you."
Two hours later, after extensive leak checks, Whitson, a retired astronaut and America's most experienced space flier, led her three rookie crewmates into the station where the seven-member Expedition 69 crew was waiting to welcome them aboard.
"Congratulations with successful launch and your docking," said cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, the station commander. "For me, this is a very great honor to work next with Peggy Whitson, the most experienced and decorated astronaut in the U.S. astronaut corps."
Replied Whitson: "We really are excited to be here. It was a great launch, a great ride, we had a lot of fun on the way up. And we're really excited to get a lot of work done up here. But it's great for me to come back personally, it does feel like home."
The Ax-2 mission is the second private Crew Dragon flight chartered by Houston-based Axiom Space and sanctioned by NASA as part of an initiative to encourage private-sector development in low-Earth orbit. It is the first such mission with two government-sponsored astronauts — Saudi nationals Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.
Ax-2 co-pilot John Shoffner, a retired fiber optics entrepreneur, private pilot and high-performance race car driver, paid an undisclosed amount for his first space flight while Alqarni and Barnawi, the second and third Saudis to fly in space, represent the Saudi Space Commission. Whitson is Axiom Space's director of human spaceflight.
"Congratulations new astronauts Rayyanah, John, Ali," Prokopyev said. "My big congratulations to the Saudi Space Commission. I'm sure you will have a great achievement in the future in your space exploration. Thank you so much, and welcome aboard."
During their eight-day stay aboard the space station, the Ax-2 crew plans to carry out 20 experiments, most designed by Saudi investigators, in a variety of fields ranging from biomedical research to technology development.
The crew also plans multiple live events with school kids across Saudi Arabia in a STEM initiative to encourage interest in science and technology.
In the meantime, Expedition 69 astronauts in the U.S. segment of the station will press ahead with a full slate of research while Prokopyev and his two Russian crewmates prepare for the arrival of a Progress supply ship Wednesday carrying 5,493 pounds of propellant, water, crew supplies and other cargo.
If all goes well, Whitson and company will undock on May 30 and return to Earth, splashing down off the coast of Florida to close out SpaceX's 10th piloted Crew Dragon flight.