The International Space Station’s population swelled to 11 on Saturday with the jubilant arrival of SpaceX’s third crew capsule in less than a year.
It’s the biggest crowd up there in more than a decade.
All of the astronauts — representing the U.S., Russia, Japan and France — managed to squeeze into camera view for a congratulatory call from the leaders of their space agencies.
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Although this was SpaceX’s third crew flight for NASA, it was the first to use a vehicle that’s flown before, an essential part of the push to the moon and Mars. The Dragon capsule was used for SpaceX’s first crew launch last May, while the Falcon rocket soaring Friday hoisted crew two in November.
It was the first time two SpaceX crew Dragons were parked there at the same time — practically side by side.
NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur — the commander and pilot of the returning Dragon — monitored their capsule’s flat screen computers during the morning rendezvous. They could have taken control if necessary, but the autonomous system did its job, much like a self-driving car.
Also checking into the space station: France’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide. Both have lived there before, as has Kimbrough. But it was the first station visit for McArthur. She flew up in the same seat and the same capsule — named Endeavour — as her husband, Bob Behnken, did on SpaceX’s debut crew mission.
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The current population includes six Americans, two Russians, two Japanese and one from France. It will shrink by four on Wednesday when three Americans and one Japanese depart for home and a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.
NASA turned to private companies for space station deliveries after the shuttles retired in 2011. SpaceX began supply runs in 2012, honing its skills before launching astronauts and ending NASA’s reliance on Russia. NASA also hired Boeing for taxi service, but the company’s Starliner capsule isn’t expected to fly astronauts until next year.