SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts docks with ISS

Emre Kelly, Florida Today

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Safely and ahead of schedule, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley docked with the International Space Station on Sunday, a crucial milestone in SpaceX's first mission to fly humans to orbit.

Their 27-foot Crew Dragon capsule, launched from Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday, made contact with the orbiting outpost at 10:16 a.m. – a timeline just shy of the predicted 19-hour trek. Docking was completed 14 minutes later with "hard capture," or an airtight seal between the ISS and Crew Dragon.

"It's been a real honor to be a small part of this nine-year endeavor since a United States spaceship has docked with the International Space Station," mission commander Hurley said. "This is an incredible time to be at NASA. Three new vehicles to be flown, continuing missions to low-Earth orbit, and then to the moon and Mars."

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Astronaut Chris Cassidy, already on board the ISS after launching on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, welcomed the veteran astronauts by ringing a bell in the station's Unity module. The Navy tradition is used to welcome the arrival of new crew members.

By 1:02 p.m., the pressure between Crew Dragon and the ISS had been equalized, allowing the astronauts to open the hatch and officially join Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

"We're just really glad to be on this magnificent complex," Hurley said during a post-arrival news conference. "This is just one effort that we can show for the ages in this dark time that we've had over the past several months."

Asked during the conference what the 19-hour flight was like, Behnken said Falcon 9 liftoff's was surprisingly smooth. After separation, he said Crew Dragon was more "alive" than the comparatively massive space shuttle orbiter he last flew in 2010.

"We were definitely driving and riding a dragon all the way up," Behnken said. "It was not quite the smooth ride the space shuttle was. A little bit more 'alive' is the best way I would describe it."

For Hurley, the docking is familiar. In 2011, he was on the final space shuttle mission's rendezvous with the ISS, during which his team left behind an American flag to be retrieved by the next group of astronauts launched from U.S. soil.

Now, nearly 10 years later, he'll capture the flag he left behind.

The docking marks something of a halfway point for SpaceX. After a one-to-four-month stay on the station, Behnken and Hurley will reenter the capsule for departure and a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. If successful, it will pave the way for SpaceX to continue flying astronauts for NASA and other agencies. It has even secured interest from civilians like actor Tom Cruise for flights to low-Earth orbit.

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Saturday's liftoff from Pad 39A on a Falcon 9 rocket returned the U.S. to crewed spaceflight, which ended in July 2011 with the final flight of the space shuttle. Under multibillion-dollar contracts doled out by NASA, SpaceX and Boeing were selected in 2014 to build new commercial spacecraft and return astronauts to the station.

With its docking, Crew Dragon became the fifth vehicle now attached to the ISS. Also there are two Russian Progress cargo craft, a Russian Soyuz capsule and a Japanese HTV-9 cargo vehicle.

Follow reporter Emre Kelly on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: SpaceX Crew Dragon docks at ISS astronauts with Behnken, Hurley