An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle, a spaceship designed to fly NASA astronauts, docking with the International Space Station.
  • SpaceX on Sunday launched its first operational mission into orbit for NASA with four astronauts on board.
  • On Monday night, the astronauts caught up to International Space Station inside Resilience — their new name for SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft — and docked to the orbiting laboratory.
  • The plan for Crew-1, as the commercial mission is called, is to spend the next six months at the ISS. If the mission succeeds, it will mark the longest human spaceflight ever launched from US soil.
  • Having Crew-1 astronauts join the existing ISS crew also represents a major opportunity for NASA to boost the amount of scientific research it can perform on the $150 billion flying laboratory.
  • The mission also more firmly sets the stage for future flights of private astronauts, including Tom Cruise and TV show contestants.
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On Monday night, four astronauts night arrived at the International Space Station inside a Crew Dragon spaceship built by SpaceX, teeing up what could be a record-breaking stay in orbit.

The NASA-funded commercial mission, called Crew-1, marks the first "operational" human spaceflight by SpaceX, which tech mogul Elon Musk founded in 2002. It follows the Demo-2 mission, which launched in May, returned to Earth in August, and marked SpaceX's first launch of people.

The astronauts of Crew-1 — Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Shannon Walker of NASA, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration agency — lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday night atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The astronauts spent most of the night settling into Resilience, as they named their space capsule, while helping SpaceX troubleshoot propellant and cabin heaters issues.

A Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX lifts off Launch Complex 39-A carrying four astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon "Resilience" spaceship on November 15, 2020, at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

On Monday, the vehicle fired its thrusters several times to catch the ISS, beginning a rendezvous with the football field-size laboratory around 9 p.m. ET. Resilience spent an hour maneuvering about 400 meters in front of the facility, then another hour carefully — and automatically — inching forward while the astronauts looked over flight data.

"They won't have to push any buttons or fire any thrusters, Dragon is doing this all on its own — it's completely autonomous," Leah Cheshier, a NASA communications specialist, said during a live broadcast on Monday night.

The ship gently bumped into and engaged a locking mechanism at 11:01 p.m. ET, softly anchoring the astronauts to their new home.

"Dragon, SpaceX: Soft capture confirmed," a SpaceX mission controller told the crew as the vehicle clicked into a port on the forward end of the US Harmony module.

"Dragon copies, and we see the same," responded Hopkins, the mission's commander.

Before Crew-1 can join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who arrived at the ISS in October, about two hours of procedures remain. The joint crews have to pressurize the docking adapter with air, check it for leaks, and then open all the hatches. NASA expects that to happen around 1:10 a.m. ET on Tuesday.

Resilience and its passengers aim to spend the next six months in space. If all goes well with the mission, Crew-1 will become the longest human spaceflight ever launched from US soil, beating a record set more than 45 years ago.

What's more, by expanding the ISS crew so those aboard don't have to spend much of their time on maintenance, NASA can finally begin to conduct more scientific research than ever before, while planting the seeds for a bustling commercial future of human spaceflight.

A commercial boost to the space station after 20 years in orbit

The International Space Station (ISS).

Since the US retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, NASA has had to buy astronauts tickets for Russia's Soyuz spaceship to get to and from the ISS — a facility that's been inhabited by humans continuously for 20 years

To help close the spaceflight gap, NASA a decade ago launched the Commercial Crew Program, a competition to spur private companies to develop new spaceships, and a bigger economy, in low-Earth orbit. The roughly $8 billion program led SpaceX to develop Crew Dragon, and Boeing to develop the CST-100 Starliner (which may not fly its first crew until late 2021).

NASA funded the Crew Dragon's creation with about $3 billion, and engineers at SpaceX designed, built, and tested it to exacting government requirements. Agency heads on November 10 finally certified the system for regular flight — in large part because of the experimental, and successful, Demo-2 flight by NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

"This is the culmination of years of work and effort from a lot of people, and a lot of time, and we have built I think what I would call is one of the safest ... launch vehicles and spacecraft ever," Benji Reed, SpaceX's director of crew mission management, said during a press briefing before Crew-1's launch.

Astronauts (from left) Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins of NASA, and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA, wear SpaceX spacesuits on their way to Launch Complex 39A during a Nov. 12 dress rehearsal ahead of the Crew-1 mission launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Crew-1 is the first of six round trips that NASA has purchased from SpaceX, and it formally kicks off an era of commercial spaceflight for the agency. The vehicle isn't limited to professional astronauts: Private astronauts (who have millions in funding) may also take a ride to space in the coming years.

For example, Tom Cruise and "Mission Impossible: Edge of Tomorrow" director Doug Liman are planning to launch to the ISS in 2021 aboard a Crew Dragon spaceship and film a movie. Space Hero, a reality TV shows, is also angling to fly a contestant to the facility in 2023. A company called Axiom Space plans to contract SpaceX for the tickets.

The most important thing to NASA, though, is expanding the crew of the space station. The ISS offers an unparalleled zero-gravity environment to perform research that can't be conducted on Earth. However, science is hard to get to when only a few crew members are on board; they're often preoccupied with hunting for leaks, fixing toilets, and performing regular cleaning and maintenance.

Now, with SpaceX looking to maintain a continuous presence in orbit with Crew Dragon, the space station can be fully staffed — and NASA can make good on its $100 billion investment in the facility.

Crew-1 aims to power a variety of research, including studying how the body responds to eating certain foods in microgravity, spaceflight's effects on astronaut brains, tissue chips and plant-growing experiments, and even part of a new spacesuit designed for exploring the moon and Mars.

"We are ready for the six months of work that is waiting for us on board the International Space Station, and we are ready for the return," Hopkins told reporters during a pre-flight briefing.

Watch the ongoing Crew-1 mission live on NASA TV:

This is a developing story.

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