SpaceX, the upstart California rocket maker, launched a new era in spaceflight this morning when its Dragon capsule was captured by the International Space Station, concluding a cargo delivery trip previously made only by NASA space shuttles and other governments' spacecraft.
At 9:56 a.m. EDT, space station flight engineer Don Pettit reached out with a 58-foot robotic arm and grabbed the unmanned capsule, which was "free drifting" beneath the $100-billion station at 17,000 miles an hour, roughly 250 miles above northwest Australia.
"Houston, it looks like we got us a Dragon by the tail," Pettit declared. "We're thinking this went really well."
The capture came quickly, after two hours of delay and as NASA, the space station astronauts and SpaceX, the 10-year-old rocket company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, were contemplating another delay.
They had intended to wait until the station and Dragon were on the day-side of Earth, to make the grab in full sunlight. But shortly before 10 a.m., they decided to settle for dawn, which lit up the Dragon and the robotic arm while the Earth below remained dark.
Minutes later, NASA TV showed the robotic arm carrying Dragon across a bright Earth backdrop.
"Once again SpaceX has done it. They have become the first private company to successfully launch their own spacecraft and get it captured by the International Space Station's robotic arm," said NASA commentator Josh Byerly.
NASA TV then turned to the celebrations: hugs all around at SpaceX's Mission Control room in Hawthorne, Calif., and handshakes at NASA's Mission Control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Over the next several hours, U.S. astronauts Pettit and Joe Abaca, as well as flight engineer Andres Kuipers of The Netherlands, will use the robotic arm to slowly reel in the 7,300-pound spacecraft and its half-ton of supplies and mate it to a portal in the space station's Harmony module. Then the astronauts will connect power and communication cables. They hope to be done by 5 p.m.
Hatches, though, won't be opened until Saturday morning. At that time, the ISS astronauts, who also include three Russians, will unload 1,146 pounds of food, clothing, supplies and science experiment kits delivered by SpaceX. Then they will reload Dragon with about 1,455 pounds of science experiment kits, trash and personal items to go back to Earth.
Dragon is set to splash down in the Pacific Ocean next Thursday.
The capture -- scheduled for 7:59 a.m. -- ran nearly two hours behind schedule as SpaceX and NASA slowly brought Dragon toward the station, while addressing problems with radar and thermal images aboard the spacecraft. The capsule moved toward the station in fits and starts as ground controllers refocused the images.
SpaceX now becomes NASA's first private space delivery contractor. The company has a five-year, $1.5 billion contract to make 12 more deliveries. Another company, Orbital Sciences, expects to make its first test flight later this year.
They'll be replacing the cargo services provided by Russian, Japanese and European government space agencies, which took over all shipping after NASA retired its space shuttles last summer.
The private contractor program eventually is to expand to ferrying astronauts as well, though that is three to five years away. In the meantime, the Russians will continue to ferry members of the six-astronaut crews to and from the station.
NASA says that private companies will provide lower-cost and more efficient cargo delivery services, and quicker turnarounds. "So we're looking at proving regular services," said SpaceX Dragon Mission Director John Couluris, "kind of at a faster rate than the other vehicles."
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