The SpaceX Dragon capsule made history today as it carefully maneuvered within a few feet of the International Space Station and was grabbed by the station’s robotic arm.
“It looks like we’ve got us a Dragon by the tail,” NASA astronaut Don Pettit told Mission Control.
The Dragon is the first privately built vehicle to dock with the ISS.
It marks the station’s first linkup with a U.S.-made spacecraft since last year’s retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, and potentially opens the way for dozens of commercial cargo shipments. If the long-range plan unfolds as NASA hopes, U.S. astronauts could be shuttled back and forth on the Dragon or similar spacecraft within just a few years.
“Today, this really is the beginning of a new era in commercial spaceflight,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program.
The hookup comes after Tuesday’s successful launch of the Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket, and represents the culmination of years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending by NASA and California-based SpaceX, known more formally as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. The company was founded a decade ago by dot-com billionaire Elon Musk, with aspirations of eventually sending humans to settle on Mars.
Musk said the technologies that were tested today will blaze a trail for those more ambitious trips to come. “The chances of that happening just went up dramatically,” he told journalists during a news conference held after the hookup.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream for the astronauts or for Dragon. The laser that guides the spacecraft to its target kept getting sidetracked by stray light reflecting off the ISS. The workaround was fairly simple; narrowing the beam and recalibrating the laser. Once that was done, Dragon moved flawlessly toward its capture by the robotic arm.
The craft will be capable of carrying six tons of cargo up and 3 tons down (the entire Dragon system is reusable). For this trip, only a couple of hundred pounds was brought up — including 14 experiments supplied by students.
The Dragon capsule will eventually be modified to carry humans back and forth from the ISS, SpaceX, along with 3 other companies, will be competing to ferry astronauts from the ground to the station and back again. But this won’t happen until for at least another 5 years as NASA plans a torturous approval process to make sure the spacecraft is safe.
In the future, it is very possible that today will be seen as the true beginning of the commercial exploitation of space. But for now, this modest step means a giant leap for the privatization of the heavens.