SpaceX delivered two astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA on Sunday, following up a historic liftoff with an equally smooth docking in yet another first for Elon Musk’s company. With test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken poised to take over manual control if necessary, the SpaceX Dragon capsule pulled up to the station and docked automatically, no assistance needed. It was the first time a privately built and owned spacecraft carried astronauts to the orbiting lab in its nearly 20 years. NASA considers this the opening volley in a business revolution encircling Earth and eventually stretching to the moon and Mars.
The docking occurred just 19 hours after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Saturday afternoon from Kennedy Space Center, the nation’s first astronaut launch to orbit from home soil in nearly a decade. Thousands jammed surrounding beaches, bridges and towns to watch as SpaceX became the world’s first private company to send astronauts into orbit, and ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA. While they’re there, the Dragon test pilots will join the one U.S. and two Russian station residents in performing experiments and possibly spacewalks to install fresh station batteries.
As always, Musk was looking ahead. This is hopefully the first step on a journey toward a civilization on Mars, he said Saturday evening.