May 25, 2012 at 4:53 AM ET
The International Space Station's crew reached out today with a robotic arm to grab SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule and brought it in for the orbital outpost's first-ever hookup with a commercial spaceship.
It marks the station's first linkup with a U.S.-made spacecraft since last year's retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet, and potentially opens the way for dozens of commercial cargo shipments. If the long-range plan unfolds as NASA hopes, U.S. astronauts could be shuttled back and forth on the Dragon or similar spacecraft within just a few years.
"Today, this really is the beginning of a new era in commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program.
The hookup comes after Tuesday's successful launch of the Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket, and represents the culmination of years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending by NASA and California-based SpaceX, known more formally as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. The company was founded a decade ago by dot-com billionaire Elon Musk, with aspirations of eventually sending humans to settle on Mars.
Musk said the technologies that were tested today will blaze a trail for those more ambitious trips to come. "This is a crucial step, and having achieved this step, it makes the things in the future and the ultimate path toward humanity becoming a multiplanet species much, much more likely," he told reporters after the hookup. "The chances of that happening just went up dramatically, so people should be really excited about that."
But first things first: Today's operation marked the first full in-space test of the robotic Dragon spacecraft's procedure for approaching the station, and for that reason, every step along the way was carefully planned out and checked over the course of several hours. The first steps in the procedure were tested on Thursday, during a series of maneuvers that successfully brought the 14-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, gumdrop-shaped capsule within 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) of the $100 billion space station.
Today, a far more ambitious set of maneuvers brought the Dragon all the way to the station — but the trip wasn't always easy.
Fixing the glitches
The craft started out by taking up a position 250 meters (820 feet) below the station. From that vantage point, the Dragon was put through a series of maneuvers to test the station-to-spacecraft communication system. The space station's astronauts had the Dragon approach, then retreat, then approach, then hold its position.
After assessing the data, NASA said it wanted to do a double-check on the Dragon's thermal imagers, which are part of the rendezvous sensor system. The spacecraft was commanded to approach to a distance of 200 meters (656 feet), then stop while NASA took stock again. Space agency spokesman Josh Byerly said SpaceX's team made "minor modifications" to the thermal imaging system, just to make sure that it was providing tracking data in line with what other instruments were showing.
The Dragon was on its way to a 30-meter (98-foot) checkpoint when the team at SpaceX's Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif., ordered the spacecraft to retreat to a distance of 70 meters (230 feet). NASA's Mission Control said the SpaceX team wanted to correct bad laser sensor readings that the Dragon was getting from a stray reflector on the station's Japanese-built Kibo laboratory. To work around the problem, SpaceX narrowed the field of view for the laser sensor so that it wouldn't pick up light from the offending reflector.
"One of the lasers wasn't working well, so we had to recalibrate the laser and tighten the beam, and then it did work," Musk explained afterward.
Catching a Dragon by the tail
Once the fix was made, Dragon returned to the 30-meter checkpoint and moved in for the final approach. When the craft reached a distance of 10 meters (33 feet), NASA astronaut Don Pettit used the station's 17-meter-long (60-foot-long) robotic arm to grab hold of the Dragon's grapple attachment at 9:56 a.m. ET.
"It looks like we've got us a Dragon by the tail," Pettit told NASA's Mission Control.
"Congratulations on a wonderful capture," Mission Control's Megan Behnken replied. "You've made a lot of folks happy down here, over in Hawthorne and right here in Houston."
Pettit joked that the operation went so smoothly it felt like a computer simulation. "This sim went really well," he said. "We're ready to turn it around and do it for real."
It took another couple of hours to pull in the Dragon and get it fully hooked up to the station's Harmony module. NASA and SpaceX refer to this operation as a "berthing" rather than a "docking," because the Dragon is being passively pulled in rather than powering itself into the docking port.
The completion of berthing at 12:02 p.m. ET put SpaceX in the company of four governmental space ventures — NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — that have built vehicles capable of hooking up with the space station.
Musk said that he'd probably have to relax SpaceX's rule against drinking alcohol at its Hawthorne headquarters to accommodate a champagne celebration, but it was clear that the hundreds of employees who gathered to watch the berthing were already on a natural high. They cheered for Musk as he spoke to reporters over a video link — and when he told them, "I love you guys, too," they broke into a chant of "E-lon, E-lon, E-lon!"
Unloading the cargo
Dragon's hatch is scheduled to be opened early Saturday morning. The station's six astronauts will unload about 1,000 pounds (460 kilograms) of cargo, including food, clothes, batteries and a laptop, plus 15 student-designed experiments. Then about 1,455 pounds (660 kilograms) of Earth-bound cargo — including personal items from the crew as well as completed experiments and old equipment — will be loaded up on the Dragon. These payloads don't come anywhere close to the Dragon's capacity (6 tons going up, 3 tons coming down), but they were made part of the mission as non-essential ride-alongs.
On May 31, the capsule will be detached from the station and sent back down toward a Pacific Ocean splashdown and recovery off the coast of Southern California. That part of the operation went off successfully during Dragon's first orbital test mission in December 2010, but this would mark the first-ever return of a commercial spacecraft from the space station. Russia's Soyuz capsule is the only other existing space vehicle capable of returning space station payloads.
A fully successful mission would open the way for commercial space station resupply missions to begin in earnest. SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 Dragon shipments through 2016. If all goes well, the first flight covered by that contract could lift off in September, said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is developing a cargo spacecraft known as Cygnus to take on space station shipments as well, under the terms of a $1.9 billion contract. The Cygnus has yet to be flight-tested, however.
In addition to the cargo contract, SpaceX is one of four companies that is receiving millions of dollars from NASA to produce spaceships capable of carrying astronauts. In SpaceX's case, the Dragon would be modified with a launch escape system, while the other companies — Blue Origin, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are working on other spaceship concepts, ranging from capsules to Sierra Nevada's mini-space plane. The first astronaut flights could take place as early as 2017.
Until that time, NASA will have to depend on the Russians to transport U.S. astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of more than $60 million a seat. SpaceX and other players in the commercial space race say they can meet or beat that price.
The transition to commercial operations for orbital transport is a key part of the Obama administration's plan for future space exploration.
"We’re handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best — exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after the Dragon's launch. "We’re committed to ending the outsourcing of work on America’s space program and bringing these jobs back to the United States."
More about the mission:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.