NASA Astronauts pilot SpaceX Crew Dragon manually during their voyage to the Space Station

NASA Astronauts pilot SpaceX Crew Dragon manually during their voyage to the Space Station

SpaceX formed a partnership with NASA under the agency's Commercial Crew Program which funded Crew Dragon's development. SpaceX performed its first crewed mission on May 30, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from historic Launch Complex 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA Astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley were launched into orbit aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The successful deployment returned human spacecraft capabilities to the United States. NASA had not launched astronauts from American soil since 2011.The mission is called Demo-2, it is a demonstration test flight to test out all of Dragon’s capabilities. The astronauts named the first SpaceX Dragon to carry humans - Endeavour. "We both had our first flights on Shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much to us to carry on that name," Hurley shared.



Crew Dragon is capable of operating autonomously, however, during Demo-2, Behnken and Hurley performed the first manual test flight.  Both, have extensive experience as military pilots and performed two Space Shuttle missions to the orbiting laboratory. Hurley was pilot on two space shuttle missions, including the last shuttle flight in 2011. Hurley is a veteran Marine Corps test pilot, and Behnken was an Air Force flight test engineer before NASA selected them as astronauts. They helped SpaceX design the spacecraft’s interface and features. “Ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface,” Hurley said. “Of course, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different. But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to kind of refine the way that you interface with a touchscreen and the way that your touch is actually registered on the displays in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, and potentially putting in a wrong input, those kinds of things.”


Dragon’s operation is very different than the Space Shuttle, its cockpit had over one thousand switches, buttons and joysticks to operate the systems and spacecraft, pictured above. Dragon’s control system is a trio of sleek touchscreen computers, the craft only has a few buttons that are to trigger emergency operations. The SpaceX spacesuit's gloves are specially designed to function with the touchscreens.  Dragon's displays provide real-time information on anything from its position in space, to possible destinations, and the environment onboard. A simple tap on a screen is capable of igniting Dragon’s integrated space thrusters to slightly alter the craft's direction. Both astronauts collaborated with SpaceX to design interior controls and display features in the Dragon spacecraft, "Every display and every procedure that is presented to crews in the future is going to have multiple items...that are our inputs," Behnken shared.

“I think it was challenging for us, and for them at first, to work through all those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from a manual flying standpoint, with a touchscreen, it flies very well,” Hurley said. “You kind of interface with the vehicle such that the cameras are displayed on that same display, so you’re seeing the docking target, for example, when you’re maneuvering close to space station right in the same exact place, you’re looking to fly the vehicle.”

“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting an input in with the touchscreen relative to what you would do with a stick because … when you’re flying an airplane, for example, if I push the stick forward, it’s going to go down. I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with a touchscreen, if that makes sense. So, it’s a little bit different way of doing it, but the design, in general, has worked out very well,” Hurely explained before the launch.


“You’re more of a monitor of all the systems, and you’re not using all your brainpower to actually fly the vehicle,” Hurley added. “That being said, the vehicle has manual capability in several phases, and we will certainly test that out because it’s just prudent to have an automated vehicle that has a backup capability manually in order to do what you need to do to complete the mission,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, it will make our job easier. It’s similar to what our Russian counterparts fly. The Soyuz is a mostly automated vehicle, but it does have manual backup capability as well, and it’s the way vehicles are being developed for the future. I think it’s the right way to fly vehicles in space, so hopefully, that’ll be the answer that we come back with.” NASA astronauts have flown on Russian spacecraft for the past nine years.

Today, May 31, the astronauts made history as they approached ISS aboard Dragon, the first commercially-made spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the station. Astronaut Hurley, the spacecraft’s commander, switched Dragon to manual operation to test out the feature. He piloted the craft through the touchscreen display interface for the first time. Hurley called the test the “far-field” maneuvering controls to alter the spacecraft’s attitude.



After the test, the crew returned Dragon Endeavour to autonomous mode and went to sleep for about 8-hours. “We had a good night’s sleep last night,” Behnken said before arriving at the ISS. “We were surprised, I think, in how well we actually slept aboard the vehicle, a little bit quieter than the Space Shuttle, a little bit more environmentally controlled.”

Astronaut Behnken, as a joint-operations commander, was the co-pilot. He performed a second manual flight test in close proximity with the space station, they called it “near-field” maneuvering. About an hour later, they switched on the autonomous feature again, to allow Dragon Endeavour to dock itself to the space station’s Harmony module. The spacecraft successfully docked today, May 31, at around 10:00 a.m. EDT. “It’s been a real honor to be a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States spaceship docked with the International Space Station,” Astronaut Hurley said as Dragon docked to the space station, “We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX, at Hawthorne McGregor and at Kennedy Space Center. Their incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible cannot go overstated.”



SpaceX released an online Dragon simulator game that is similar to what astronauts used to train for the historic Demo-2 mission. According to SpaceX, it features “controls of the actual interface used by NASA Astronauts to manually pilot the SpaceX Dragon 2 vehicle.” Try to dock to the International Space Station: Crew Dragon Simulator

The astronauts will stay working at the orbiting laboratory anywhere between six to sixteen weeks. It all depends on how well the Dragon spacecraft performed, and how long SpaceX takes to prepare the next spacecraft that will send a new crew to the space station.

Behnken and Hurley shared a beautiful view of Earth out Dragon Endeavor's window, shown in the video below. 




About the Author

Evelyn Arevalo

Evelyn Arevalo

Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.

Follow me on X

Reading next

Deep Dive Into Tesla Tabless Electrode Patent Before Battery Day
Tesla Will Soon To Open The 1st Store in Slovenia

Tesla Accessories