"It looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail," NASA astronaut Don Pettit said as he captured SpaceX's Dragon cargo freighter with the International Space Station's (ISS) robotic arm. The Dragon capsule, carrying supplies for the ISS astronauts, is the first ever commercial freighter to reach the ISS.
"This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one in which there is a significant commercial space element," SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk said after the launch. "I hope and I believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology."
SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, built and operated the Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that propelled it into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base on Tuesday.
The Dragon, along with a second cargo freighter being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp, will provide supplies such as food and clothing to the NASA astronauts aboard the ISS.
Eventually, the commercial freighters will also begin transporting astronauts to the station, ending the Russian monopoly on human transport. Currently SpaceX has a $1.6 billion, 12-flight contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS while Orbital's contract clocks in at $1.9 billion.
After an unsuccessful launch Saturday due to "slightly high pressure in the engine 5 combustion chamber," SpaceX was given the go-ahead to try again Tuesday, when the Falcon 9 rocket successfully propelled the Dragon into space at 3:44 a.m.
After two days of traveling in orbit and then firing thrusters, Dragon successfully berthed with the ISS early Friday morning. On Saturday morning around 5 a.m. EST, the ISS crew will begin the two-hour process of opening the capsule.
The mission marks the first successful steps in taking space exploration commercial after President Barack Obama halted many of NASA's existing plans, such as a lunar base, in favor of focusing on long-term asteroid and Mars missions.
NASA's human spaceflight program, called Constellation (CxP), was officially terminated in the 2011 budget passed in April. Since then, the push for private companies to enter the space race has intensified with support from the White House.
"For the first time, a private American company has successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit and berthed it with the International Space Station--an achievement of historic scientific and technological significance and a key milestone in President Obama's vision for America's continued leadership in space," Assistant To The President For Science And Technology John Holdren said after today's event.
He added, "That is exactly what the President had in mind when he laid out a fresh course for NASA to explore new scientific frontiers and take Americans even deeper into our solar system while relying on private-sector innovators...It's essential we maintain such competition and fully support this burgeoning and capable industry to get U.S. astronauts back on American launch vehicles as soon as possible."
The Dragon capsule will return to earth on May 31st, crashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
by RTT Staff Writer
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