Chapter 12 of 29 from Chris Hadfield

Spaceships: Navigating to the International Space Station


“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.

Topics include: "Approaching the Space Station • Navigate by Committee • Docking With the Space Station • Learning to Dock: Practice Systems Failures • Breaking Into Mir"

Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield Teaches Space Exploration

In 28+ lessons, the former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.

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Class Info


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.

Learn about the past, present, and future of space exploration with astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Download the workbook for lesson recaps, assignments, and photocopies of handwritten notes that Chris took to space.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Chris will also answer select student questions.


Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield Teaches Space Exploration