SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour docks at ISS

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A recycled SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with four astronauts aboard has successfully docked at the International Space Station, a day after launching from Nasa's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Soft capture -- the first phase of docking -- occurred at 0908 GMT, 424 kilometres over the south Indian Ocean.

Hard capture, the second stage, occurred 10 minutes later, when 12 hooks were securely attached between Endeavour and the ISS's forward port. The hatch of Crew Dragon Endeavour was due to open around two hours after later.

"Hard capture complete, welcome Crew-2," said US astronaut Shannon Walker, current commander of the ISS.

"Thanks Shannon, we're glad to be here, we'll see you all in a few minutes," replied Endeavour's commander, US astronaut Shane Kimbrough.

The Crew-2 mission is the third crew sent to the ISS by SpaceX, as part of its multibillion dollar contract with Nasa, and the first time the company was reusing a rocket and spacecraft.

The team includes the first European, Thomas Pesquet of France, blasted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida before dawn on Friday.

Flying on used vehicles is a key cost-saving goal of Nasa's partnerships with private industry.

Three white Teslas that whisked the astronauts to the launchpad bore license plates reading "recycle," "reuse," and "reduce" -- a nod to the fact that both the Falcon 9 booster and Endeavour were deployed on previous missions.

SpaceX's first crewed mission to the ISS launched last May, ending nine years of American reliance on Russian rockets for rides, following the end of the Space Shuttle program.

"I think we're at the dawn of a new era of space exploration," said SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who made a surprise appearance at the post-launch press conference.

The arrival of the space quartet -- which also includes American Megan McArthur and Japan's Akikho Hoshide -- will bring the number of people on the station to 11, as the Crew-2 team overlaps for a few days with Crew-1 astronauts, in addition to three Russian cosmonauts.

Giant leap for Europe

The launch is a major milestone for Europe, which named the mission "Alpha" after the star system Alpha Centauri.

"This is really the golden era for us in terms of exploitation of the International Space Station," Frank De Winne, head of ISS programs for the European Space Agency (ESA), told AFP.

Germany's Matthias Maurer and Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti are set to follow Pesquet on SpaceX missions, this fall and next spring respectively.

The next module of the ISS, built by Russia, should reach the station in July and will include a robotic arm built by ESA that Pesquet will help make operational, added De Winne.

ESA will also be a key partner to the United States in the Artemis program to return to the Moon, providing the power and propulsion component for the Orion spacecraft, and critical elements of a planned lunar orbital station called Gateway.

(with AFP)