ORLANDO, Fla. — SpaceX, the upstart California rocket maker, launched a new era in spaceflight Friday when its Dragon capsule was docked at the International Space Station, concluding a cargo delivery trip previously made only by NASA space shuttles and other governments’ spacecraft.
At 6:56 a.m. PDT, 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 moment was marked by jubilant high-fives by the youthful engineers in SpaceX’s Mission Control room in Hawthorne, Calif., and more-sedate handshakes by controllers at NASA’s Mission Control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston, who worked together to bring off the historic feat..
“There’s so much that could have gone wrong and it went right,” said an elated Elon Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal who started SpaceX in 2002.
“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.”
With the berthing, SpaceX qualified to become NASA’s first private contractor authorized to ship cargo to the space station, with a five-year, $1.5 billion contract to make 12 trips.
Its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule — the first new U.S.-built rocket and capsule in more than a decade – will enable the company to not only deliver cargo but also bring science experiments back to Earth, the first time NASA has had that capability since the space shuttle was retired a year ago.
“As a country, we should be very proud,” said Mike Suffredini, NASA’s International Space Station program manager. “We’ve taken a capability that this agency has nurtured over many years… and combined that with a different thought process, really, in the design and development of a spacecraft.”
The dawn of a new era was evident in the NASA TV images during a news briefing later: At Johnson, mostly middle-age NASA officials appeared in their usual coats and ties, looking and sounding serious. In Hawthorne, Musk wore a sweat suit over a T-shirt; many of his exuberant, youthful workforce were in shorts or jeans. As he spoke, they cheered and chanted, “Elon! Elon! Elon!”
The mood was such that one reporter asked if alcohol was being served at the SpaceX headquarters. Not yet, Musk said, adding that champagne was on its way. The group’s average age, Musk added, is “around 30.”
“I think it’s important to mix the wisdom of age with the vibrancy of youth in order to get the best outcome and to drive forward the state of technology while avoiding the mistakes made in the past,” he said.
Their expertise showed Friday morning, as Dragon made its final approach to the station. SpaceX technicians and engineers were getting unexpected readings from two sets of sensors used to precisely measure distances between Dragon and the station. Several times, they halted the capsule’s progress, and once even pulled it back a few meters to determine what was wrong and how to overcome it.
“The Dragon team just did a wonderful job understanding the data they were receiving and seeing for the first time and working, deliberating with us to overcome some challenges and new and interesting pieces of data,” said NASA flight director Holly Ridings. “Flying in space with two dynamic vehicles is first about teamwork and then about trust.”
Dragon was safely secured to the space station by early afternoon. Its hatches will be opened Saturday morning, and the station’s six-man crew — three Russians, two Americans and a Dutch engineer — will unload a half-ton of supplies, replacing it with a half-ton of used equipment and science experiments to be returned to Earth.
The capsule — slowed by giant parachutes like the Mercury and Apollo capsules of the 1960s and ’70s — is due to splash down in the Pacific May 31.
If all goes well with the Dragon departure, re-entry and recovery from the ocean, NASA expects SpaceX to be fully certified to begin its cargo transport contract. The next Dragon flight could be in September, from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station range.
Another private space cargo transport contractor, Orbital Sciences, is about a year behind. Its first test flight could come in August and its first delivery demonstration flight could come in April 2013. Such commercial “space taxis” are a key initiative of the Obama administration, which has ordered NASA to focus on deep-space missions.
They’ll be replacing the cargo services provided by Russian, Japanese and European government space agencies, which took over all shipping after the retirement of the shuttle last summer.
SpaceX and other companies, including Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp., hope to take the next step and ferry astronauts as well. Musk repeated his company’s hope that SpaceX could be doing so in three years. NASA estimates five years.