Biggest space station crowd in decade after SpaceX arrival

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In this image made from NASA TV, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, left, approaches to the international space station, Saturday, April 24, 2021. The recycled SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts has arrived at the International Space Station, a day after launching from Florida. (NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The International Space Station's population swelled to 11 on Saturday with the jubilant arrival of SpaceX's third crew capsule in less than a year.

It's the biggest crowd up there in more than a decade.

All of the astronauts — representing the U.S., Russia, Japan and France — managed to squeeze into camera view for a congratulatory call from the leaders of their space agencies.

“In this tough situation around the world, I believe you have brought courage and hope for all of us,” Japanese Space Agency President Hiroshi Yamakawa said from his country’s flight control center, referring to the global pandemic.

A recycled SpaceX capsule carrying four astronauts arrived at the space station a day after launching from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The Dragon capsule docked autonomously with the orbiting outpost more than 260 miles (420 kilometers) above the Indian Ocean. The hatches swung open a couple hours later, uniting all 11 space travelers.

“Man, it is awesome to see the 11 of you on station,” said NASA's acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk. He noted that this will be the norm, now that SpaceX is regularly flying crews.

The newcomers will spend six months at the space station. They’ll replace four astronauts who will return to Earth in their own Dragon capsule Wednesday to end a half-year mission. NASA deliberately planned for a brief overlap so the outgoing SpaceX crew could show the new arrivals around.

Although this was SpaceX’s third crew flight for NASA, it was the first to use a vehicle that’s flown before, an essential part of a plan by SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk to push to the moon and Mars. The Dragon capsule was used for SpaceX’s first crew launch last May, while the Falcon rocket soaring Friday hoisted crew two in November.