The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule did what no other commercial spacecraft has done before, successfully moving between the ports of the International Space Station. The repositioning of the Crew Dragon “Resilience” – which has been on the ISS since mid-November 2020 – is an important demonstration of the spacecraft’s ability to navigate autonomously and relocate around orbital technology and the research platform.
It is the second demonstration of this autonomous experience for SpaceX and NASA. The arrival of “Resilience” to the ISS on November 17, 2020 caused it to pilot itself to dock at the Harmony module’s advance door. In the process, it became the first operational flight with Crew Dragon’s own crew and, more broadly, the NASA Commercial Crew Program as a whole.
Since then, the spacecraft has been safely locked in place, but NASA needed to move it for the next missions. At the end of this month, for example, NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 astronauts are scheduled to arrive on the ISS. Meanwhile, during the summer, new solar panels are due to be delivered for installation on the space station.
The Dragon Crew’s move took place this morning, with “Resilience” undocking the Harmony module and then repositioning itself to re-fit into its zenith, or space-facing port. The whole process took about 45 minutes and was carried out completely autonomously. However, astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency were all on board during the event.
It is an essential demonstration of an important part of Crew Dragon’s skills. Although the crew can enter and exit the spacecraft on both module doors, the layout of the International Space Station presents other challenges, depending on the load of future missions.
The solar panels being delivered during the summer, for example, will be unloaded and installed using the ISS robotic arm, Canadarm2. This is mounted on the exterior of the Harmony, but will only reach the next Dragon with the panels when fitted to the module’s forward port.
Subsequently, “Resilience” will be used by the four crew members on board during this test repositioning for the return trip to Earth. This is scheduled to happen on April 28, 2021, with SpaceX planning to retrieve the capsule and restore it to another flight.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is developing a second version of the Crew Dragon, replacing the docking door at the top of the spacecraft with a glass-domed viewport. This will not be used for ISS missions, but instead, it is intended to give space tourists an unprecedented view of Earth and space during future commercial flights.