Freedom has arrived: Dragon successfully docks at space station with astronauts

ESA astronaut describes Dragon thrusters as 'beautiful' and ghostly

There are 11 astronauts in space, about 200 miles above Earth, after SpaceX's Dragon Freedom docked at the International Space Station Wednesday night.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the four Crew-4 astronauts Wednesday at 3:52 a.m. ET from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which began the journey for the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS.

After about 16-hours of spaceflight and getting some shut-eye, NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti arrived at their home for the next five to six months. 

Dragon is a fully automated vehicle and can line up and park all independently. According to NASA, the initial approach happened around 6 p.m. ET and docking happened at 7:37 p.m., about 45 minutes ahead of schedule.

The astronauts provided a virtual tour of the capsule and introduced their zero-gravity indicators ahead of the docking. A small toy turtle named Zippy was chosen by Hines' daughter Julia and the monkey named Zippy was a toy of Cristoforetti's daughter, Kelsey.


The zero-G indicators have a double meaning. Every astronaut class has a nickname. Hines and Watkins are part of the 2017 class known as the turtles.

"Kjell's class from 2009 are known as the chimps … and then Samantha's class from the European Space Agency were known as shenanigans, and everybody knows if you get a turtle and a monkey together, that is shenanigans," Hines explained. 

Watkins gave a tour of the capsule, including the view of Earth out the windows. As a geologist, she said she was particularly interested in the rock formations she could see.

Lindgren said his favorite part of the journey was launching in the Falcon 9, calling it an "incredibly smooth" and fun ride to orbit. 

There were a few thruster burns while they were sleeping, and at one point, Cristoforetti said, she looked out the small hatch window to see the thrusters in action.

"It was like a ghost flying behind us, very, very light green, making incredible shapes, and then it became more incandescent light," she said of the thrusters. "It was just beautiful."


The new arrivals were welcomed with open arms by the four Crew-3 astronauts to the ISS just after 9 p.m. ET.

Eight astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts will be working in space together for about five days. While it's four more than usual it's not a record. Last year, 14 people were in space at one time during the Inspiration 4 mission.  

NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Kayla Barron and Tom Marshburn and ESA's Matthias Maurer will depart in early May, completing the Crew-3 mission with a splashdown off the Florida coast. 

Chari and Barron are also from the 2017 "Turtle" astronaut class. 

With "Zippy" and the colorful turtle named "Pfau" brought up by Crew-3, there are now six turtles in space.