The private company SpaceX made history with the docking of its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, the most impressive feat yet in turning routine spaceflight over to the commercial sector.
The docking on Friday marked the first time a business enterprise delivered a supply ship to the space station.
“There’s so much that could have gone wrong and it went right,” said an elated Elon Musk, the young, driven billionaire behind SpaceX.
“This really is, I think, going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel — and hopefully the first of many to come,” he said.
SpaceX still has to get its Dragon back next week with a load of science gear; the retro bell-shaped capsule is designed to splash down into the ocean, in the style of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
However, Friday was the crucial step, Musk said, and NASA agreed the next SpaceX mission could come as early as September.
After a three-day flight from Cape Canaveral, the Dragon closed in on the space station as two control centers — NASA in Houston and SpaceX in Hawthorne, California — worked in tandem.
A problem with the capsule laser-tracking system prompted SpaceX controllers to order a temporary retreat, but the problem quickly was resolved.
NASA astronaut Donald Pettit used the space station’s 17.6m robot arm to snare the gleaming white Dragon as the two craft soared 400km above Australia, a day after a practice fly-by.
“Looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail,” Pettit said once he locked onto Dragon’s docking mechanism.
NASA’s dressed-up controllers applauded. In contrast, their SpaceX counterparts — including Musk — lifted their arms in triumph and jumped out of their seats to exchange high fives.
The company’s youthful-looking employees — the average age is 30 — were still in a frenzy when Musk took part in a televised news conference a couple of hours later.
They screamed with excitement as if it were a pep rally and chanted, “E-lon, E-lon, E-lon,” as the 40-year-old Musk, wearing a black athletic jacket with the SpaceX logo, described the day’s events.
Alcohol was banned from the premises during the crucial flight operation, Musk said, “but now that things are good, I think we’ll probably have a bit of champagne and have some fun.”
The crowd roared in approval.
Although cargo hauls have become routine, Friday’s linkup was significant in that an individual company pulled it off. That chore was previously reserved for a small, elite group of government agencies.
Not only that, the reusable SpaceX Dragon is designed to safely return items, a huge benefit that disappeared with NASA’s space shuttles. It is the first US craft to visit the station since the final shuttle flight last summer.
“I think you know it, but you made history today,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said to the space station astronauts and everyone else involved in Friday’s docking. “It was an effort that will revolutionize the way we carry out space exploration.”
NASA provided seed money for SpaceX — US$381 million going into Tuesday’s launch, a small portion of the more than US$1 billion that the company has invested in the effort.
Two hours after the capture, the crew attached the Dragon to the space station as the congratulations poured in.
“Everyone who is working to push forward the space frontier recognizes that such a mission is a massive challenge, and I join the world in lauding this important accomplishment,” said Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that is holding a seat for Musk aboard its SpaceShipTwo.