CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – The privately bankrolled Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station for a historic docking Friday, captured by astronauts wielding a giant robot arm.
It succeeded in making the first commercial delivery into the cosmos.
U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit used the space station’s 58-foot robot arm to snare the gleaming white Dragon after a few hours of extra checks and maneuvers. The two vessels came together while sailing above Australia.
“Looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail,” Pettit announced from 250 miles up once he locked onto Dragon’s docking mechanism.
“You’ve made a lot of folks happy down here over in Hawthorne and right here in Houston,” radioed NASA’s Mission Control. “Great job guys.”
NASA controllers clapped as their counterparts at SpaceX’s control center in Hawthorne, Calif. – including SpaceX’s billionaire maestro, Elon Musk, of PayPal fame – lifted their arms in triumph and jumped out of their seats to exchange high fives.
This is the first time a private company has attempted to send a vessel to the space station, an achievement previously reserved for a small, elite group of government agencies. And it’s the first U.S. craft to visit the station since the final shuttle flight last July.
The astronauts wasted no time getting the Dragon capsule into position for actual docking to the space station. The unmanned capsule is carrying 1,000 pounds of supplies on this unprecedented test flight.
On Thursday, the capsule came within 1½ miles of the space station in a practice fly-by. It returned to the neighborhood early Friday so Pettit, along with Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers could capture it with a robot arm. First, the capsule went through a series of stop-and-go demonstrations to prove it was under good operating control.
NASA ordered extra checks of the Dragon’s imaging systems as the capsule drew ever closer to the space station, putting the entire operation slightly behind schedule. At one point, SpaceX controllers ordered a retreat because of a problem with on-board tracking sensors.
Given that the Dragon is a brand new type of vehicle and this is a test flight, the space agency insisted on proceeding cautiously.
A collision at orbital speed – 17,500 mph – could prove disastrous for the space station.
SpaceX – officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – is one of several companies vying for the chance to launch Americans from U.S. soil. That ability ended with NASA’s final shuttle flight last summer. To get to the space station, NASA astronauts must go through Russia, an expensive and embarrassing situation for the U.S. after a half-century of orbital self-sufficiency.
President Barack Obama is pushing commercial ventures in orbit so NASA can concentrate on grander destinations like asteroids and Mars. Once companies master supply runs, they hope to tackle astronaut ferry runs.
Musk, who founded SpaceX a decade ago and helped create PayPal, said he can have astronauts riding his Dragon capsules to orbit in three or four years. His Falcon 9 rockets lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The space station has been relying on Russian, Japanese and European cargo ships for supplies ever since the shuttles retired. None of those, however, can bring anything of value back; they’re simply loaded with trash and burn up in the atmosphere.
By contrast, the Dragon is designed to safely re-enter the atmosphere, parachuting into the ocean like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules did back in the 1960s. Assuming all goes well Friday, the space station’s six-man crew will release the Dragon next Thursday after filling it with science experiments and equipment.