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Science & Technology

Spaceships: Navigating to the International Space Station

Chris Hadfield

Lesson time 21:04 min

“It’s kind of like an elephant ballet.” Chris talks you through the process of flying your spaceship to the ISS, docking, and beginning your adventure aboard the laboratory in the sky.

Chris Hadfield
Teaches Space Exploration
The former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.
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MISSION CONTROL (VOICEOVER): This is mission control. Status check in the control room here. All positions are go. HOUSTON (VOICEOVER): Discovery, Houston with you. DISCOVERY (VOICEOVER): Discovery, Roger. HOUSTON (VOICEOVER): We've got a good picture of you all in the crew module. DISCOVERY (VOICEOVER): Houston, we have a nice downlink. Good morning, Atlantis. It's time to do that delicate dance in the dark and dock with Mir. All ATLANTIS (VOICEOVER): Right. The task of flying your spaceship up to find, and then rendezvous, and maneuver in, and dock with another spaceship is daunting. It's really complex, and it happens in phases. At the start of it, you're so far away that you can't see each other. All of your information comes from Earth. There's an enormous satellite tracking station somewhere around the world. We have a satellite farm, like the ones down here in New Mexico. And there are big satellite dishes pointed at the sky. And they track maybe the International Space Station go over. And then later, they track whichever ship it is, the Soyuz or the space station go over. And they do the math down on Earth. They figure out the geometry. They figure out that if you want to change from this orbit to that orbit, then you need to turn your spaceship, point a certain direction, and fire your engines for a certain number of seconds, and that will start to modify your orbit to slowly catch up to the orbit of the space station that's there. If you want to catch up, you have to be closer to the Earth, because the closer you get, the faster you go around. So if the station is somewhere out in front of you, you have to be close to the Earth. And because of orbital mechanics, to get closer to the Earth, you actually turn around backwards and slow down. And that drops you into a lower orbit, which then goes around the world more quickly so you catch up. It's weird to slow down to catch up, but you get used to the idea. If you're out in front of the station, then you would have to fire your thrusters forwards. Well, actually, on this, it would be this way. You'd fire your thrusters forwards so that you'd end up in a higher orbit so you could start to drift back and get closer and closer to station. You don't want to crash into the station. You want to keep everything under really tight control. So we go through a delicate, choreographed ballet on the way into a rendezvous and docking. We practice various gates that we want to get to. You want to stop a certain number of miles or kilometers away and get things stable. If you think about it, if you're below the space station, if you're closer to the Earth, then you're going to be pulling away from it in front. If you're higher than the station, then you're going to be drifting back. But if you're at exactly the same altitude as the station, then you go around the world in exactly the same amount of time. So you'll stay stable. If you stop eight miles back from sta...

Explore the unknown

Impossible things happen. At age nine, Chris Hadfield knew he wanted to go to space. He eventually went there three times, becoming a commander of the International Space Station. In his MasterClass, Chris teaches you what it takes to explore space and what the future holds for humans in the final frontier. Learn about the science of space travel, life as an astronaut, and how flying in space will forever change the way you think about living on Earth.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

One of the best learning experiences I have ever had, so amazing. Thanks.

So eye opening to learn about what goes on and how important their job is in orbit

I have learned new things that I didn't know before about space exploration which was awesome. What I enjoyed the most was hearing from someone who has proven that nothing is impossible when it comes to exploring new things and chasing your dreams.

I absolutely admire, respect and "heart" Chris Hadfield. He is so well spoken and easy to listen to. This course was an absolute dream. I intend to watch it all again and again. SO many great nuggets of Wisdom. A1 (inter) Stellar class. :D


Bernardo F.

Wonderful! I love to watch actual footage in this lessons, and by the way Chris narrate these events, he makes it seem dificult, yet nothing compared to what must be there piloting a spaceship.

Elizabeth C.

This is amazing! Such clear explanation and so many intricate details to understand. It's awe-inspiring. Thank you for this.

Mário Filipe P.

I can't get enough of this... I just love the way Chris shares his stories and experiences. He carries so much enthusiasm and excitement from those moments, it's like he's living it all over again... so captivating. It makes me feel like I'm right there with him inside the spaceship. Fenomenal speaker, and huge personal source of inspiration. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us Chris! :)

William D.

Funny story about "breaking into MIR". Unfortunately there wasn't a lot of video of Chris using his "jack knife" to save the day.

Muhammad Ali A.

Awesome lecture. Indeed it will be so nice feeling to complete the daunting effort of docking !!!

Patty R.

I want to practice docking in a simulator in my Oculus VR headset. Does NASA have the simulation available for space education? #OpenEducation

A fellow student

Something I don't understand. Once the spaceshuttle has left the atmosphere and is in orbit, does it turn off its engines and just orbit naturally around the world or does it need to keep firing the engines to Stay in order?

Maddie W.

I love the personal stories from Chris Hadfield because they really make me feel like we all get to experience at least a small part of his journey. It's amazing to hear him describe his feelings of celebration and wonder upon first seeing the ISS, or the tension and preparation that occurs before docking. I know he explained that it's mostly done by sight on the space shuttle so I wonder if docking a capsule with the ISS is any easier. I'm assuming a capsule has less mass so it would be interesting to know how different the experience is.

Steve H.

What a tense situation in positioning the Shuttle for docking and the immense feeling of relief and joy and "rapture of the capture" once the docking is complete.

Rosie G.

They brought flowers to Mir!!! So: first astronaut step: Get a jack knife!!