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SpaceX Dragon Successfully Berths with Space Station


SpaceX Dragon hangs just below the space station awaiting capture by the space station's robot arm. Photo Credit/NASA TV


The   SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully rendezvoused and berthed with the International Space Station on Friday, accomplishing the first cargo delivery by a U. S.commercial supplier.

The milestone was a significant step in the push by U. S.policy makers to turn over the cargo and crew transport responsibilities once assigned to NASA’s space shuttle to the private sector — allowing NASA to refocus its energies on human deep space exploration with future missions to the asteroids and Mars.

The unpiloted freighter, launched Tuesday, maneuvered within 35 feet of the station, where astronauts Don Pettit, Andre Kuipers and Joe Acaba were at the controls of Canadarm2, a robot arm they used to reach out and lock onto Dragon.

“Looks like we have a Dragon by the tail,” Pettit informed Mission Control as the mechanical limb latched onto its target at 9:56 a.m., EDT.

“Great job, guys,” responded Mission Control’s space station communicator Megan Behnken.

The robot arm then hoisted Dragon to a berthing port on the station’s Harmony module minutes after 12 p.m., where it is scheduled to remain until May 31.

Dragon, top, berthed to the space station's Harmony module. Photo Credit/NASA TV

“”You made history today,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the station astronauts. “You’ve firmly locked us in place, firmly locked the future direction of the American space program in place.”

“This is just a great day for the country and the world,” said Elon Musk,  SpaceX founder and chief designer. ”This really is going to be remembered as a significant step forward in the history of space. Truly, this is fantastic, but I think there will be even better things in the future.”

SpaceX and prospective cargo carrier Orbital Sciences Corp. are partners in NASA’s six-year-old Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. SpaceX is among four companies — Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are the others — participating in a second funded effort by NASA to add commercial crew transport services by 2017.

Dragon marked the first U. S.spacecraft to visit the station since the shuttle Atlantis arrived in July 2011. With the berthing, SpaceX  joined the U. S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency as the only spaceflight organizations capable of docking with the six person orbital lab.

Friday’s berthing followed on the heels of a successful “fly under” of the station by Dragon on Thursday, an exercise that swept the capsule 1.5 miles below the space station during a series of navigation and communications check outs.

Dragon departed the station, flying out in front, then up and behind while flight controllers for NASA and SpaceX evaluated  the data gathered during the test. Late Thursday, NASA’s space station mission management team cleared Dragon for a re-rendezvous and berthing.

There were a few difficulties as Dragon moved within the final 1,000 feet of the approach.  But the control teams overcame the issues with Dragon’s guidance sensors.

The station crew plans to open Dragon on Saturday and remove the 1,000 pound cargo of food, clothing, student science experiments and computer components. Dragon will be re-stocked with nearly 1,400 pounds of station hardware, research equipment and space suit gear.

The freighter will unberth early May 31 and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere before splashing down under parachute in the Pacific Ocean off the southern California coast.

SpaceX plans to recover the reusable capsule.

A successful test flight will clear the way for SpaceX to begin regular supply missions to the station in September.

Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences is preparing a similar test mission by its Cygnus spacecraft later this year and regular supply launches to the station next spring.




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