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NASA: SpaceX docking ranks near top of space-age 'firsts' (+video)

The successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the International Space Station Friday is a landmark moment in opening space to wider use, NASA officials say.

By Staff writer / May 25, 2012

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft (top) approaches the International Space Station Friday.

NASA/AP

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The first commercially operated cargo ship destined for the International Space Station entered the record books Friday when the station's crew confirmed that SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft was securely docked to the orbiting outpost.

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The International Space Station's crew confirmed that SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft was securely docked to the orbiting outpost.

Dragon cleared its first major hurdle of the day Friday when station flight engineer Don Petitt, the mission's grappler-in-chief, captured the Dragon capsule with the station's robotic arm as the craft free-floated some 30 feet from the docking port.

Houston? Station. Looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail,” Dr. Petitt said as NASA's mission control confirmed that the arm's grip was solid.

Without skipping a beat, he deadpanned, “We're thinking this sim[ulation] went really well. We're ready to turn it around and do it for real,” as applause and hugs broke out in two control rooms – NASA's and SpaceX's at the company's Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters.

Until its conclusion on May 31, the mission remains a test flight – combining into one mission the objectives initially planned for two launches this year. But its success so far signals that a company NASA has helped nurture can perform the difficult feat of lofting a craft capable of catching up with another spacecraft traveling at faster-than-bullet speeds, matching its pace, and safely docking with it – something no other privately-operated spacecraft has done.

Indeed, Dragon was not merely carrying a demonstration payload of roughly 1,000 pounds of food, clothing, and other items to the space station. It was carrying the hopes of a US commercial spaceflight industry aiming to build a thriving space-transportation sector in much the same way fledgling air carriers emerged during the early decades of the 20th Century to build a thriving commercial air-transportation industry.

Over the years, NASA officials have spoken of the “firsts” the US space program has accomplished, said Michael Suffredini, space-station program manager at NASA, at a news briefing Friday afternoon.

“This rates right at the top,” he said of the partnership between NASA and SpaceX. NASA established requirements SpaceX had to meet operating near the space station. Beyond those requirements, he said, “a contractor relatively independent of NASA designed on its own a spacecraft, [then] completely built and tested and flew this spacecraft in a manner that has been remarkable.”

A space-station workout

The rendezvous and docking Friday gave participating space-station crew members a workout.

Although the process of grappling and berthing may look fairly simple, it isn't, notes astronaut Catherine Coleman, who grappled Japan's cargo craft, known by its acronym HTV, on its second supply mission to the station in January 2011. She likens it to trying to pass something from one car to another – when both are traveling at interstate speeds.

On orbit, it's a Grey Poupon moment at 17,500 miles an hour.

“This is truly a momentous accomplishment for SpaceX and for the industry,” said former astronaut and space-station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, now president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in Washington, in a prepared statement.

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