He had flown on the Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz. And now after flying the SpaceX Dragon capsule, Soichi Noguchi is the third person, after John Young and Wally Schirra, to travel to orbit in three vehicles.
Asked Thursday how the three compared, Noguchi did not hesitate. “For the record, Dragon is the best,” the Japanese astronaut said. “Short answer.”
During their first news conference since arriving at the International Space Station on Monday night, the astronauts who blasted off Sunday evening said their escape from Earth’s gravity was a thrilling ride atop a spacecraft that on the ground appeared restless, grunting and vibrating before being unleashed into the skies, a fury of nine engines churning through thousands of gallons of propellant.
“You can just tell it wants to get off the ground,” mission commander Mike Hopkins said. “It’s definitely ready to go, and it just leaped off the pad. It was amazing.”
The mission followed a test flight in May that ended NASA’s absence from human spaceflight since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. With that successful mission, which sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the station for two months, NASA then proceeded with the Crew-1 flight, making the Dragon capsule the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight.
The craft carrying a crew of four – NASA astronauts Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as Noguchi – lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday evening and arrived at the station about 27 hours later. The crew is scheduled to spend six months on the orbiting laboratory conducting science experiments, including one, proposed by Michigan high school students, that will examine how spaceflight affects brain function.
On Monday, the Dragon docked autonomously with the station while it orbited Earth at 17,500 mph. The astronauts sat by, monitoring the spacecraft but staying off the controls.
Glover, a Navy fighter pilot with more than 3,000 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft, including 24 combat missions, said being hands-off “wasn’t an issue.”
“The rocket, the Falcon 9, performed superbly, the way it was supposed to,” he said. “Dragon performed superb.”
The crew joined NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who arrived at the station last month. Now with seven occupants the football field-sized station is a bit cozy – but not, Rubins said, crowded.
“This is busy in a great way,” she said. “There’s energy up here. We’ve got people zooming by.”
Seven people are aboard the station that has six sleeping quarters, so Hopkins is bunking down in the Dragon capsule, making it one of the most expensive space bedrooms ever.
As commander of the mission, he said, “it just felt right that that’s where I was supposed to go. We talked about it as a crew a little bit. And everybody would be willing to sleep wherever. You’re in space, and so you’re not going to complain. . . . Overall, I think it’s going to work. It’s a roomy vehicle.”
He said he was being careful, though, to make sure that he did not do anything to damage the vehicle as he floats in and out. “It’s what’s going to get us home, and so I want to make sure I don’t do anything to compromise that while I’m sleeping in there.”
Following spaceflight tradition, the crew brought up a “zero-G indicator,” something that would float to let the astronauts know that they had escaped gravity. On this flight, it was a Baby Yoda doll, chosen in an attempt to provide a bit of levity during a tumultuous year, rocked by a pandemic, civil unrest and a polarizing election.
“When you see him,” Hopkins said of the “Mandalorian” character bobbing about in space, “it’s hard not to smile.”