Astronauts aboard the International Space Station tucked the newly arrived Dragon cargo capsule into a berthing port on the Harmony connecting node just after noon on Friday, capping a key test flight for NASA’s new commercial space initiative.
The capsule, owned by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is the first privately owned vessel to reach the orbital outpost, which flies about 240 miles above Earth.
Getting to the station was a big reach for SpaceX, which had just one previous flight of Dragon under its belt. The company is one of two hired by NASA to fly cargo to the station following the retirement of the space shuttles last year.
“It looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail,” NASA astronaut Don Pettit radioed to Mission Control in Houston as he grappled the capsule with the station’s 58-foot-long robot arm.
Dragon took its time positioning itself within reach of the crane, proceeding at a snail’s pace at times while ground controllers stopped, started and occasionally reversed its course to make sure it could be controlled.
At one point, SpaceX ground operations team in Hawthorne, Calif., halted Dragon to adjust the capsule’s laser imaging system, which it uses to see the station. Sensors were picking up stray reflections from the station’s Japanese module.
“Congratulations on a wonderful capture,” astronaut Megan Behnken radioed to the station crew from Mission Control. “You’ve made a lot of folks happy down here, over in Hawthorne and right here in Houston. Great job, guys.”
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said he got a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama after Dragon reached orbit.
“Caller ID was blocked, so at first I thought it was a telemarketer,” Musk quipped in a Twitter message.
Dragon, which is loaded with about 1,200 pounds of cargo for the crew, is expected to remain attached to the station until May 31. Before it is removed from its berthing slip, it will be loaded with about 1,300 pounds of equipment and science gear that needs a ride home — the first big return load since the final shuttle flight last summer.
Dragon is due to parachute down into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California later that day.
The test flight clears SpaceX to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the station. A second company’s freighter is expected to debut later this year.
Image: The Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV