SpaceX launches Crew Dragon's first test flight

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"It's different", said Mark Geyer, director of the Johnson Space Center, where United States astronauts are based.

"We're going to learn a ton from this mission, " said NASA's commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders.

The white, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX company under contract to NASA, closed in on the orbiting station almost 260 miles above the Pacific Ocean and, flying autonomously, linked up on its own, without the help of the robotic arm normally used to guide spacecraft into position.

- Jason Davis (@jasonrdavis) March 3, 2019The first @Commercial_Crew mission arrived at the space station today when the @SpaceX #CrewDragon completed soft capture on the Harmony module at 5:51am ET. They rushed there from Florida after watching the Dragon rocket into orbit early Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. And it will dock with the orbiting laboratory on Sunday to drop off about 400 pounds of supplies before it flies back home five days later.

Spectacular video from the station showed the sleek capsule, its nose cone hinged open to reveal its docking mechanism, moving in slowly against the deep black of space.

SpaceX's first crewed mission, which will fly NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, could happen by July, according to NASA's most recent schedule.

Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon rumbles off the pad.

"Today represents a new era in space flight" said Jim Bridenstine, head of the USA space agency who sees the launch as a step toward the privatization of low Earth orbit. The white Crew Dragon is slightly bigger - 27 feet tip to tip - and considerably fancier and safer.

It was the first time humans have entered a Crew Dragon while in space and the first time anything has passed through that hatch since the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to the ISS' forward end in 2011.

If it's given the green light, SpaceX would also be the first private company to send an astronaut capsule with crew to the space station.

Kirk Shireman, manager of Nasa's International Space Station programme, said: "You'll hear us talk about this being a flight test; it absolutely is". During operational crew missions, Dragon will be able to carry approximately 50 kg of cargo to and from the station, in addition to the crew.

Both SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner were supposed to conduct their first test flights last August.

Unlike Cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon will splash down via four parachutes in the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of Florida, whereas Cargo Dragon has always landed in the Pacific. Astronauts in the US have been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets since NASA's fleet was retired in 2011, but those seats are costly.

Since then, it has been buying seats in Russian Soyuz rockets - the only ones capable of transporting humans there. "We've got NASA "rocking" again", Trump tweeted.

Next up, though, should be Boeing, NASA's other commercial crew provider.

NASA is paying the two private companies $8 billion to build and operate the capsules for ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.