An excellent 90-second whirlwind tour of the history of docking in space – past, present and future! A lively animated look at the history of docking, from Gemini and Soyuz through to Shuttles, ATV and the future. Of course, the future is, uhm, subject to change. Scroll down and clink on ‘continue reading’ for the full narrative description.

March 1966 Gemini-Agena: first-ever rendezvous between two spacecraft, Gemini-8 (Cmd. Neil Armstrong) and an Agena rocket stage. The docking was successful but the Gemini had a systems failure threatening the lives of the astronauts and had to undock after less than a minute.

November 1966, first unmanned flight of a Soyuz (first successful manned flight in 1968). Since the very first Russian spaceflights, the series of manned Soyuz craft, designed in the 1960s with their three occupants have regularly serviced the Mir and International Space Stations. When the Shuttle retires, the only crew-rotation vehicle for the ISS until new craft become operational. The last Soyuz to arrive at ISS was that of Paolo Nespoli, and remains docked with another Soyuz.

March 1969: Apollo 9, ten days in Earth orbit demonstrates rendezvous and docking of the Lunar Module (“Spider”) and the Command & Service Module (“Gumdrop”)

1973-1974 Skylab: the US’s first space station, using the third stage of a Saturn 5 and Apollo Command/Service modules. Was visited 4 times: Severe damage on launch, notably to its insulation and lack of power with an un-deployed solar panel prevented its access on the first visit. On the second mission astronauts in a space walk repaired Skylab and stayed in it for 28 days. There were two additional missions, with the crew remaining 84 days on the final one.

July 1975 ASTP (Apollo-Soyuz Test Project): the historic and symbolic meeting in space of the two big space powers (still competing to be first on the Moon) with the three astronauts of an Apollo capsule (Cmd. Tom Stafford) and three cosmonauts in Soyuz-19 (Cmd. Alexei Leonov). It is the first time that rendezvous technologies are exchanged between the Soviet Union and the United States. The two craft remain attached for two days.

January 1978: First flight of the Russian Progress space freighter, a variation on the Soyuz, is regularly used to service the ISS. Both the Soyuz and Progress were designed to dock automatically but astronauts and ground teams regularly have to take control and manually conclude the dockings. The last vehicle to arrive at ISS on 30th January was the 41st Progress.

November 1983 Spacelab: first flight of the European Spacelabs, carried into space by the Space Shuttle – two were built, LM-1 given to NASA, and LM-2. They were used until 1998 (ESA’s Neurolab mission), after which experiments were transferred to the International Space Station in the Spacehab (smaller version of Spacelab). The Spacelabs flew 25 times. On one occasion Spacelab LM-2 docked with the Mir space station (June 1995).

1995: The shuttle Atlantis docks with the Russian Mir space station for the first time. The Atlantis STS-71 flight marked the 100th US human space flight. Whilst attached for five days they established a record for the largest combined spacecraft in orbit. The Shuttle-Mir programme paved the way for ISS.

On 3rd April 2008 ATV-1, on the inaugural flight of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Jules Verne, carried out the first fully automated rendezvous and docking with the ISS. On that mission there had been two demonstration days during which the ATV rehearsed its final approach to the ISS docking port, then withdrawing. These trials fully convinced everyone of its great precision and that its anti-collision and avoidance systems were total reliable.

September 2009 HTV: First flight of the Japanese HTV – or Kounotori-1 (‘white stork’) – space freighter arrives at the ISS. But it requires being grappled by the Station’s Robotic Arm and must be manually attached to the ISS. One can note that for its second flight, at the end of January 2011, it was NASA astronaut Cady Coleman & ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli who operated the robotic arm to berth HTV-2 (on 27 January). The HTV-2 was initially docked to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module of the ISS. This port was freed on February 18th for the arrival of Discovery when Nespoli & Coleman transferred HTV-2 to Harmony’s space-facing port. Japan is building five more HTVs, on the basis of one flight a year upto 2016.

ATV-2 – The Johannes Kepler (launched on 16 February 2011) is due to berth at Zvezda docking port of the ISS on 24 February. Paolo Nespoli will be with Aleksandr Kaleri to monitor and if necessary take action during the final approach. ATV-2 will stay docked to the ISS (nominally) until the beginning of June.

Next ATVs: Edoardo Amaldi (ATV-3 launch in early spring 2012) plus two others are being built by EADS Astrium. ESA is currently considering ordering a 6th ATV.

The future…

United States
COTS vehicles (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: This NASA programme announced in 2006, called for proposals for vehicles to be needed until 2015. In 2006 it made a pre-selection of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft (with Falcon-9 launcher) and in 2008 also retained the Cygnus vehicle (with Taurus launcher) proposal from Orbital Sciences. NASA contracts were awarded to SpaceX in 2008 for the launch of 20 tonnes of freight with 12 vehicles and to Orbital for 20 T with 8 launches. Both vehicles would be manually berthed to the ISS. The Dragon capsule has made one test flight in December 2010. NASA is currently examining a SpaceX proposal that its next test flight go all the way and dock with the ISS.

In the framework of the US Commercial Crew Development programme, other candidates were selected at the start 2010 for astronaut transportation.

ARV: currently being considered by ESA. It would re-use the ATV service module but replacing the integrated cargo carrier with a re-entry module to bring back experiments and other small freight from the ISS.

A manned version of ATV is apparently no longer on the cards for essentially budgetary reasons.