Interview: The man who tamed the Dragon

André Kuipers, the only Dutch astronaut to fly twice into space, was responsible for berthing the first private spacecraft with the ISS.


The following is an excerpt from our full interview with ESA astronaut André Kuipers that will be printed in All About Space issue 12, on sale 2 May 2012

Born 5 October 1958, André Kuipers is a Dutch physician and ESA astronaut who has flown into space twice. His first mission in April 2004 was a short-duration stay on the ISS of a week and a half. His second mission launched to the ISS on 21 December 2011 and returned on 1 July 2012, during which time he was responsible for berthing SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the first private vehicle to dock with the ISS.

Jonathan O’Callaghan: So you were tasked with bringing the first Dragon to the ISS in May 2012?
André Kuipers: Yes, together with [NASA astronaut] Don Pettit. Several crews were trained for the event but things were postponed so finally it came down to us. Because this was the first Dragon we didn’t know if it would behave properly, so my task was to send it back and forwards together with the ground. I also gave commands for Dragon to switch its lights on and off, to see if the signals were going through properly and that it was flying to our wishes.

JO: Did anything go wrong?
AK: There was one moment where we saw Dragon retreating and I thought ‘oh, we didn’t give that command, what’s going on?’ But it turned out the ground did that because it was having problems with its rangefinder. For a moment we thought it wasn’t going to work, but then they said it was okay to approach again.

Kuipers berthed the Dragon capsule with the ISS, seen here, on 25 May 2012.

JO: How did the capture go?
AK: For the capture I was controlling the Dragon and checking all the distances, making sure that it was in a free drift. You don’t want either the station or the Dragon to move around when you’re trying to grab it with the arm so it has to go in free drift so it doesn’t move. Then I gave Don the go-ahead and he grappled it, and then I took over and turned the Dragon around. It was interesting with this arm because you have three ways to move with the angles of the joints, and I got to use all three of them which was nice because you train for that for many years, so it’s nice to get to use all the possibilities of this arm. And then we berthed it with the ISS, which isn’t the same as a docking like the ATV or Soyuz. A berthing is where you pull it in yourself. This was a great moment, an operational highlight, and maybe even the highlight of my career, because this is why you train all this time. I mean you really have this spaceship in your hands, and it’s the very first one, and then you click it and connect it with the station. It was a great moment.

Images courtesy of ESA and NASA

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