Space station links up with Dragon capsule

Space station links up with Dragon capsule

The privately bankrolled Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station today, making history as the first commercial delivery ship in orbit.

Astronauts Donald Pettit and Andre Kuipers used the space station’s robot arm to snare the Dragon after a few hours of extra manoeuvring.

NASA is handing over routine orbital flights to private business so it can concentrate on grander destinations like asteroids and Mars.

The California-based SpaceX company is leading the charge under billionaire Elon Musk, who helped create PayPal.

Dragon will remain at the space station for nearly a week. It will be freed next Thursday to return to Earth with a load of experiments.

"Looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail,” US astronaut Pettit announced.

The two vessels came together while sailing above Australia at 17,500mph.

Controllers with NASA, clapped as their counterparts at SpaceX’s control centre in California – including Mr Musk - jumped out of their seats to exchange high fives.

SpaceX – officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp – is one of several companies vying for the chance to launch Americans from US soil.

For now, NASA astronauts going to the space station must go through Russia, an expensive and embarrassing situation for the US after a half-century of orbital self-sufficiency.

Once companies master supply runs, they hope to tackle astronaut ferry runs.

Mr Musk, who founded SpaceX a decade ago, said he can have astronauts riding his Dragon capsules to orbit in three or four years.

The current, unmanned Dragon capsule is carrying a half-ton of supplies.

The capsule made a practice fly-by yesterday and returned early so Pettit, with Dutch astronaut Kuipers could capture it with the robot arm.

NASA ordered extra checks of the Dragon’s imaging systems as the capsule drew closer to the space station, putting the operation slightly behind schedule. At one point, SpaceX controllers ordered a retreat because of a problem with on-board tracking sensors.

The space agency insisted on proceeding cautiously. A collision at orbital speed could prove disastrous.

The space station has been relying on Russian, Japanese and European cargo ships for supplies ever since the NASA shuttles retired. None can bring anything of value back; they are simply loaded with rubbish and burn up in the atmosphere.

The Dragon is designed to safely re-enter the atmosphere, parachuting into the ocean like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules did in the 1960s.

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