(By Eliyahu Kamisher and Allison Williams, dpa)

Washington (dpa) – Two US astronauts became the first people to dock a privately-built spacecraft on the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday…

After a 19-hour flight, the arrival went smoothly above the border between China and Mongolia, in a race against time as orbital night approached.

The capsule completed docking at 1416 GMT, in what NASA personnel called an epic moment in history.

After a pressurisation sequence, hatch opening and connecting the power systems of the two spacecraft, the ISS welcomed astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on board.

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Hurley and Behnken were launched into Earth’s orbit aboard the Dragon capsule Endeavor on a Falcon 9 rocket, both built by SpaceX, a private commercial spaceflight company.

“The whole world saw this mission, and we are so, so proud of everything you have done for our country and, in fact, to inspire the world,” NASA head Jim Bridenstine said in a call from Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

This photo provided by NASA shows the crew of SpaceX entering the International Space Station, Sunday, May 31, 2020. The Dragon capsule arrived Sunday morning, hours after a historic liftoff from Florida. It’s the first time that a privately built and owned spacecraft has delivered a crew to the orbiting lab. (NASA via AP)

Hurley gave credit to SpaceX and said it was “great to get the United States back in the crewed launch business.”

“It’s been a real honour to be a super-small part of this nine-year endeavour since the last time a United States spaceship has docked with the International Space Station,” Hurley said.

Behnken said on the call the Dragon was “a slick vehicle” and “was huffing and puffing all the way into orbit.”

“We were surprised a little bit at how smooth things were off the pad. The space shuttle was a pretty rough ride heading into orbit with the solid rocket boosters,” Behnken said.

Back on Earth, the process was watched by NASA staff, some wearing masks, others without. “Endeavour, this is Houston after spectacular rendezvous and docking,” they greeted the moment of contact.

A SpaceX Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Crew Dragon capsule, lifts off from Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, May 30, 2020. The two astronauts are on the SpaceX test flight to the International Space Station. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts blasted towards orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“This is an incredible time to be at NASA.”

It was the first launch from US territory in nearly a decade and the first time a private firm, rather than a government space agency, has sent astronauts into orbit.

There was also a message of congratulations from Russia.

“It’s essential to have two transport systems,” Vladimir Ustimenko, spokesman for the Roskosmos space agency, said earlier on Sunday in Moscow. “Now, not only Russians will fly to the ISS but also Americans. That’s wonderful!”

The purpose of the trip is to complete the validation of human spaceflight operations for SpaceX hardware, which will pave the way for private companies to ferry astronauts to the ISS, ushering in a new era of commercial spaceflight.

In this image taken from NASA TV video, the SpaceX Dragon crew capsule, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Robert Behnken aboard docks with the International Space Station Sunday, May 31, 2020. It was the first time a privately built and owned spacecraft carried astronauts to the orbiting lab in its nearly 20 years. (NASA TV via AP)

Rockets also in development

According to NASA, SpaceX, along with Boeing, which is also developing rockets, will be able to launch crews to low-Earth orbit, allowing the government agency to focus on deep space missions – with an eye towards Mars.

The Dragon capsule was designed to self-dock at the ISS. However, the two veteran astronauts Behnken and Hurley were able to assume control if necessary.

After docking, Behnken and Hurley will be stationed on the ISS for an undetermined amount of time, depending on “readiness of the next commercial crew launch,” NASA said.

The Dragon capsule is capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days, NASA said, and will autonomously undock with the astronauts on board when the mission is complete.

On the ISS, the astronauts will perform tests and join one American and two Russians who are currently aboard the station.

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley, left, and Robert Behnken walk out of the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building on their way to Pad 39-A, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, May 30, 2020. The two astronauts will fly on a SpaceX test flight to the International Space Station. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts will blast into orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Author: ANA Newswire