Successful docking for SpaceX Dragon capsule

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from pad 39A on Saturday in Cape Canaveral Fla. Image Terry Renna  AP

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from pad 39A on Saturday in Cape Canaveral Fla. Image Terry Renna AP

The docking took place more than 400km above the Earth's surface, north of New Zealand - 27 hours after the capsule's launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The US still uses Russian Soyuz spacecraft for sending astronauts to the space station.

SpaceX, along with Boeing, was awarded a contract to fly USA astronauts to the space station by NASA back in 2014.

SpaceX said the spacesuit for Ripley, apparently a reference to the protagonist in the science fiction movie "Alien", has been embedded with sensors around its head, neck, and spine to monitor how a flight would feel for a human. Both astronauts - Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken - were at SpaceX Mission Control in Southern California, observing all the action.

The successful voyage of SpaceX's unmanned Crew Dragon to the International Space Station this weekend put the USA one tantalizing step closer to the day when American rockets will again ferry the nation's astronauts into space.

While Saturday's SpaceX test mission is a crucial step in the oft-delayed project, there are questions about whether NASA can achieve its 2019 flight goal of manned flight.

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"Just super excited to see it", Behnken said minutes after the linkup.

As part of Sunday's shakedown, the station astronauts sent commands for the Dragon to retreat and then move forward again, before the capsule closed in for good. SpaceX employees at company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, cheered the docking, then burst into applause again when the Dragon's latches were secured. "Just one more milestone that gets us ready for our flight coming up here".

It will spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost, before making a splashdown in the Atlantic next Friday - all vital training for the next space demo, possibly this summer, when two astronauts strap in. Both SpaceX and Boeing are vying for manned space missions from NASA and Boeing will test its Starliner system as early as April.

SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has made the trip to the ISS a dozen times since 2012, but only to refuel the station. Soyuz tickets have skyrocketed over the years; Nasa now pays 82 million USA dollars per seat. The version designed for humans is slightly bigger and safer.

It features four seats, three windows, touch-screen computer displays and life-support equipment, as well as eight abort engines to pull the capsule to safety in the event of a launch emergency.

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