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Try your hand at docking with the International Space Station without destroying it

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Real astronauts don’t invert

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The SpaceX Dragon resupply ship is pictured attached to the Earth-facing port on the International Space Station’s Harmony module.
The SpaceX Dragon resupply ship is pictured attached to the Earth-facing port on the International Space Station’s Harmony module.
Photo: NASA

Later this week, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will make its first delivery of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). To celebrate the occasion, the private spaceflight company released a fun little browser-based simulation so folks here on Earth can try their hand at the maneuver. I gave it a go over lunch, and found out for myself how difficult flying a real spaceship can actually be.

Opening up the web app, users are greeted by the exact same interface used on the Crew Dragon capsule. Controls are mapped to the WASD, Q, and E keys on the left and the numpad on the right if you have a full-size keyboard. If you’re on mobile or a tablet you can just touch the screen.

The HUD is excellent. There are handy little indicators — three of them — that show you your current orientation of roll, pitch, and yaw relative to the docking clamp on the ISS. Below those indicators you can also see your rate of change for each axis. The challenge is to keep all of those indicators within two tenths of a degree from zero, while also hitting the bullseye with the nose of your ship.

A radial HUD with two control surfaces mapped on either side of the screen. The simulation would work well on an iPad or some other tablet.
At this point in my approach I’m just over 26 meters away, moving quickly at a dangerous rate of .75 meters per second. To get properly aligned I need to roll right, turn my nose to the left, and bring my pitch up slightly.
Image: SpaceX via Polygon

In practice, it feels a bit like trying to land a brick on top of a flagpole.

There is very little room for error and, even if you do end up bang on target, if you’re going too fast you’ll crash. And by crash I mean punch right through the side of a multi-billion dollar research station that’s been in orbit for nearly 20 years.

I got it on the second try.

The hardest part of the whole situation was the fact that apparently real astronauts don’t invert the y-axis, something I’ve been doing in every spaceflight sim I’ve ever played. I can only imagine that I wasted a lot more fuel than the autopilot that will be in charge of docking the real spaceship later this week.

More than anything, I suddenly have have a newfound respect for the crew of Apollo 13. Jim Lovell and company were doing this sort of thing for years, but with far more analog solutions.

According to our sister site The Verge, the flight computer won’t get to have all the fun. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will also get to take the Crew Dragon out for a spin. They have a test of the manual control system scheduled just prior to docking.


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