The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that launched from Florida's Kennedy Space Center with four astronauts on board Sunday night is approaching the International Space Station. The spacecraft is expected to dock with the ISS around 11 pm ET, after a 27-hour journey.
That will be followed by a "welcome ceremony" at 1:40 am ET on Tuesday, when the crew — NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japan's space agency -— are able to exit their spacecraft for the first time since mid-afternoon Sunday.
They'll join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russia's Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who are already onboard the ISS. They arrived last month on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
A safe docking will mark the end of the first leg of a landmark mission for NASA and SpaceX, which have been working together for a decade to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States and ensure the multibillion-dollar ISS stays fully staffed.
As many as 13 astronauts were on board at one time in 2009. But that number has occasionally dropped to as low as three, which leaves fewer people to help run experiments and help keep the space station well maintained.
This also marks the first fully operational crewed mission for SpaceX, following up a test mission in May that carried NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, both test pilots, to the space station for a brief stay.
Glover's inclusion in this mission, called Crew-1, has its own historic significance. Though more than a dozen Black Americans have traveled to space since Guion Bluford became the first to do so in 1983, Glover will be the first to become a full-time crew member on the ISS. This also marks Glover's first-ever trip to space.
During a brief dispatch between mission control and the astronauts Monday afternoon, mission commander Hopkins asked ground control operators if they could see Glover smiling "because it hasn't stopped since we've been up here."
Though mission control had to work through some minor technical hangups on the autonomous Crew Dragon spacecraft overnight, the ride appeared to be going smoothly on Monday. Since taking off from Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Sunday evening, the Crew Dragon spacecraft has been slowly raising its orbit and maneuvering closer to the space station.
Meanwhile, the astronauts were able to swap their spacesuits for more comfortable clothing and get some sleep. NASA intentionally lengthened the time that Crew Dragon is flying free in orbit to allow the crew to sleep so that they'll be fully awake and alert when it comes time to dock with the ISS.
The Crew-1 astronauts are expected to spend about six months on board the ISS, where they'll work on a variety of science experiments and conduct space walks to continue updates and repairs on the space station's exterior.
Before returning home, they'll be joined by yet another group of astronauts on a mission dubbed Crew-2 that's due to launch in the spring.