SpaceX Makes History With Dragon Docking
May 25, 2012

SpaceX Makes History With Dragon Docking

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Lee Rannals for

SpaceX made history today as its Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.

Dragon launched on Tuesday, May 22 at 3:44 a.m. from Cape Canaveral towards the ISS, reaching the orbiting laboratory on Thursday.

"Congratulations on a wonderful capture," astronaut Megan Behnken radioed to the station crew from Mission Control as they used the space station's robotic arm to grasp the capsule and bring it in. "You've made a lot of folks happy down here, over in Hawthorne and right here in Houston. Great job, guys."

SpaceX had to perform a series of tests before being given the go-ahead by NASA to attempt to dock Dragon with the station.

As the docking ensued, history was being made before the onlookers eyes as government space agencies and the private industry merged along with the Dragon and space station.

"It looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail," NASA's Don Pettit told mission control in Houston as he used the 58-foot-long robot arm to help engineer the historic moment.

Now, once Dragon is mated to the station, astronauts will begin to unload its payload bay, which consists of food, clothing, computer equipment, and science experiments.

NASA authorized the flight on Thursday afternoon after Dragon successfully flew underneath the orbiting lab about 1-1/2 miles.

SpaceX only had one shot to get the docking right, because Dragon would not have had enough fuel to attempt another. So with the pressure on, Dragon performed its assigned duties successfully, ushering in a new age in space exploration.

"Today marks another critical step in the future of American spaceflight," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement after the successful docking. "Now that a U.S. company has proven its ability to resupply the space station, it opens a new frontier for commercial opportunities in space -- and new job creation opportunities right here in the U.S."

Bolden said this step into the age of a commercialized space industry frees up NASA "to carry out the really hard work of sending astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before."

The next phase for the spacecraft is getting through the Earth's atmosphere and safely back to the ground.  Dragon is currently the only capsule capable of not only bringing supplies to astronauts, but also bringing equipment back down to Earth from space.

The crew will have a week to unload the contents of the capsule before releasing the spacecraft for re-entry to Earth.

SpaceX is now on pace to receive a $1.6 billion contract from NASA for 12 more resupply missions to the $100 billion space station.

"The investments made by the United States to stimulate the commercial space industry are paying off," Philip McAlister, director for Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. "SpaceX achieved what until now was only possible by a few governments, and the company did it with relatively modest funding from the government.

Crew members will detach Dragon from the station on May 31, enabling the capsule to head back to Earth with clothing and ISS equipment.  Dragon will deorbit for about four hours after leaving the station, and take about 30 minutes to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and land in the Pacific Ocean 250 miles west of southern California.