Four astronauts on board Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft have successfully docked at the International Space Station (ISS) for a six-month mission.
Frenchman Thomas Pesquet is the first European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut to fly in the billionaire tech entrepreneur’s space capsule, alongside Nasa’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, and Jaxa’s (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Akihiko Hoshide, who is on his second mission to the space station.
The capsule docked at around 10.19am on Saturday UK time after launching from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida less than 24 hours earlier.
Speaking at a news conference held shortly after launch, Musk appeared thrilled and relieved at his company’s third successful crewed launch of a Crew Dragon vehicle.
“I’m just really proud of the SpaceX team and honoured to be partnered with Nasa and helping with Jaxa and ESA as well,” he said.
“It’s very intense, I suppose it does get a little bit easier but it’s still extremely intense,” Musk said. “I usually can’t sleep the night before launch and that’s true of the night before this one.”
The Crew-2 astronauts are due to leave the ISS in October and splashdown in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida.
It is the third launch in less than a year for Nasa’s Commercial Crew programme, which relies on private sector companies operating from the US.
Nasa had been reliant on the Russian Soyuz shuttle programme for more than a decade.
The “recycled” Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon rocket combination sent four astronauts to the ISS last November and the capsule transported and returned two astronauts during the first crewed SpaceX flight last May.
The crew will replace Nasa’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Jaxa’s Soichi Noguchi, who are scheduled to return to Earth next Wednesday in another SpaceX capsule.
David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the ESA, said: “Thomas’s mission is part of a sequence that is taking us on a journey that will one day end up with boots on Mars, the red planet.
“But right now, Mars is only a destination for our robots. Beyond the space station, one of the things we are doing is preparing for the return to the moon, or going forward to the moon, to explore it properly this time.
“So Europe is building the power propulsion for Orion – the new deep spacecraft that will take humans to the moon. We have three seats aboard that are already planned.
“We will learn then on the moon how to take that much bigger leap eventually to the surface of Mars.”
Josef Aschbacher, the ESA’s director general, described the launch as “an emotional moment”, adding: “SpaceX has done an incredible job.”