The privately owned and operated SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station on Friday, a success for the Obama administration’s new strategy of using robotic missions and public-private partnerships in space.
NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station helped guide the capsule in, but the craft itself was operated remotely from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
(PICTURES: Dragon Docks with Space Station)
"It looks like we've got us a Dragon by the tail," NASA’s Don Pettit told SpaceX Mission Control, carrying on a long tradition of carefully scripted astronaut quips.
“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 milepost in President Obama’s vision for America’s continued leadership in space,” John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, said in a blog post.
“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 ever deeper into our Solar System while relying on private-sector innovators—working in the competitive free market—to ferry astronauts and cargo to Low Earth Orbit and the International Space Station. 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.”
SpaceX, founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, is one of several companies vying to replace government-funded NASA operations. The space-shuttle fleet retired after the final launch of a shuttle mission to the space station last July, and U.S. astronauts must now rely on Russian missions--at $60 million a pop--to get to and from the space station.
Other U.S. space missions are purely robotic, although SpaceX, among others, wants to win contracts to carry NASA astronauts on missions. The Dragon capsule will parachute back through the atmosphere at the end of its mission--a la NASA's 1960s and 1970s missions--carrying trash, cargo, and finished science experiments.
The NASA-SpaceX partnership includes using NASA and Air Force facilities: The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the capsule launched on May 22 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, from a launchpad apart from the one used by the shuttles.
If NASA’s new approach works, astronauts may be riding to and from space in a capsule like the one on Dragon and similar to those used on Apollo and other missions. SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion, 12-flight contract with NASA, is one of four companies contracted to come up with safe ways to get astronauts into space and home again. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, Sierra Nevada, and Orbital Sciences Corp. are also vying for the job.