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SpaceX capsule docks at International Space Station

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — About 250 miles above northwest Australia, a cargo-carrying space capsule linked up with the International Space Station, marking the first time a privately built and operated vehicle has ever docked at the orbiting outpost.

Astronauts on the space station plan to enter the capsule Saturday and take delivery of half a ton of food, water and clothing brought by the upstart space company that developed the spacecraft, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.

The mission is considered the first test of NASA’s plan to outsource space missions to privately funded companies now that the U.S. fleet of space shuttles has been retired. SpaceX aims to prove to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo — and eventually astronauts — for the space agency.

“Today marks another critical step in the future of American spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “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.”

The docking at 12:02 p.m. on Friday was a milestone for SpaceX and may also mark a seismic shift for U.S. spaceflight, which for more than half a century has been the province of governments and large, entrenched aerospace firms.

On its own, SpaceX built its Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 rocket that lifted it into orbit. By contrast, the overall design of NASA’s previous space-going vehicles and their missions were tightly controlled by the government and contracted to aerospace giants.

At SpaceX headquarters in the Los Angeles-area city of Hawthorne, company engineers have overseen the entire mission, which began Tuesday when the Falcon 9 lifted off in the predawn hours from Cape Canaveral, Fla. They monitor incoming data for anomalies, and if there are any, they can order the launch to be scrubbed or address the mission issues.

In a post-docking webcast on NASA TV, Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini commented on the change under way in aerospace.

“A contractor relatively independent of NASA designed on its own a spacecraft, completely built and tested and flew this spacecraft in a manner that has been remarkable,” he said.

Shortly after docking, a smiling Elon Musk, SpaceX’s 40-year-old billionaire founder and chief executive, appeared at the briefing from the company’s sprawling rocket-making facility in Hawthorne.

“This is the culmination of an incredible amount of work,” he said, surrounded by a throng of cheering SpaceX workers. “There’s so much that could’ve went wrong and it went right.”

The last hours of the Dragon’s journey to the space station weren’t flawless. A problem with the spacecraft’s onboard sensors pushed back the capture to about two hours later than planned.

After SpaceX engineers solved the issue, the Dragon floated in for docking. It was first grappled by the space station’s 58-foot robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. EDT, controlled by astronaut Don Pettit, who had practiced the task dozens of times in simulation.

“Looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail,” Pettit said on radio to NASA’s Mission Control in Houston.

At that moment, engineers watching at SpaceX’s control center in Hawthorne and at NASA’s center in Houston began applauding, with rounds of high-fives and handshakes.

“You’ve made a lot of folks happy down here over in Hawthorne and right here in Houston,” NASA’s Mission Control radioed back to Pettit. “Great job, guys.”

Later, the Dragon was drawn in closer, inch by inch, for docking. NASA officials said the crew plans to begin unloading the half-ton of food, water and clothes aboard the Dragon at 7:40 a.m. EDT on Saturday.

Until now, sending a spacecraft to the space station was a feat reserved for the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced governments: the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union.

NASA wants to turn the job of carrying cargo and crews over to private industry. Meanwhile, the agency will focus on deep-space missions to land astronauts on asteroids and Mars.

SpaceX, with about 1,800 employees, has gotten nearly $400 million in seed money from NASA and has a $1.6 billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for the space agency. If NASA deems the current test mission successful, SpaceX will begin fulfilling the contract later this year.

SpaceX is not alone in the so-called private space race. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is nipping at the company’s heels, with a test flight of its commercial rocket set for later this year. Orbital also has a $1.9 billion cargo-hauling contract with NASA.

Critics, including some former astronauts, have voiced concerns about NASA’s move toward private space missions. They have said private space companies are risky ventures with unproven technology.

The Dragon is currently slated to stay at the space station until Thursday. Once released from the space station, the craft should make its way back to Earth and deploy parachutes to slow its descent after entering the atmosphere.

It’s set to splash down in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles west of Southern California.

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