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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.

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NASA itself has no small dog in this hunt. In an era of tight budgets and sometimes rancorous debates over the space agency's budget and future, it's looking to commercial companies to take over transportation for people and cargo to and from the space station so it can devote its human-spaceflight resources on exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.

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Indeed, Dragon, and a second cargo craft slated for tests later this year and built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, will become the workhorses for space-station resupply efforts throughout the rest of the space-station program, notes Michael Suffredini, NASA's space-station program manager. Although Japan, the European Space Agency, and Russia fly cargo craft to the station, Europe has only two missions left between now and 2014. Japan is slated to launch five more resupply missions through 2015. SpaceX is under contract with NASA to provide 12 flights through 2015. Orion is under contract for eight flights.

The docking, minute by minute

After passing its tests on Thursday, Dragon began its rendezvous approach just before 1:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time Friday. Approaching from directly underneath the space station, Dragon reached a way point some 100 feet below the station at 9:13 a.m. Along the way, it had demonstrated its ability to advance and retreat on command – a capability crucial to safe operation at the station.

By 9:53 a.m. Dragon was within thin reach of the space station's robotic arm. Seven minutes later it was firmly in the arm's grip. Andre Kuipers, a station crew member with the European Space Agency, brought the capsule in to its docking port on the stations Harmony module. There, NASA crew member Joe Acaba batted cleanup, overseeing the final bolting of Dragon to the space station.

At 12:02 mission control confirmed that Dragon had become the newest – if temporary – module on the space station.

The nature of the mission as a demonstration flight became apparent as Dragon was making its approach. Controllers either halted its progress temporarily or held it at a way point longer than planned to deal with unexpected glitches in the Dragon's rendezvous sensors.

That issues arose is not unexpected in a test flight, said Holly Ridings, NASA's lead flight director for this mission.

“It took us some time to understand those sensors” given that this was the first time they had been used in space, she acknowledged. “But the Dragon team did a wonderful job of understanding the data they were receiving and working jointly with us to overcome the challenges.”

'Historical step'

For his part, SpaceX's founder and chief designer, Elon Musk, was finding it difficult to convey his sense of the company's singular achievement.

“I don't have words enough to express the level of excitement and elation we feel here at SpaceX for having this work,” he said. “There's so much that could have gone wrong and went right. This really is going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel.”

The station crew is slated to open Dragon's hatch Saturday at 7:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. But don't be surprised if the crew cracks the hatch earlier, warns Ms. Riding, “the crew's pretty excited.”

Dragon will remain attached to the station until May 31, when it's scheduled to return to Earth with some 1,400 pounds of cargo.   


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