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Dragon arrives at the space station

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
May 25, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—SpaceX's Dragon berthed with the International Space Station May 25, another first for private space.

The approach was carefully controlled and monitored by NASA and SpaceX, and at one point the spacecraft was retreated back from the station having approached to within 30 metres. After checks Dragon was allowed to proceed again and, in accordance with the mission plan, was captured by the space station's robotic arm.

The arrival of Dragon at the space station is a huge achievement for SpaceX that was founded only 10 years ago by Elon Musk.

Commenting on the mission, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote on his blog:

"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. We’re committed to ending the outsourcing of work on America’s space program and bringing these jobs back to the United States."

SpaceX had become the first company to put a spaceship into orbit in December 2010 when Dragon was lifted to orbit successfully by the pioneering company's Falcon 9 rocket.

Today's achievement sets up SpaceX to become a regular supplier of cargo to the space station. Dragon is also being developed to carry astronauts and the current mission will provide valuable data for future flights.

Dragon captured by the space station
Dragon captured by the robotic arm of the space station. Credit: ESA/NASA

Dragon has food and experiments onboard - which will be unloaded after the hatch is opened on Saturday May 26. Before leaving the space station on May 31 Dragon will be loaded with cargo trash in preparation for the spacecraft's return to Earth.

Although SpaceX was awarded an ISS supply contract by NASA in December 2008, the company had to pass the demonstration missions first to prove its Dragon spacecraft is a safe and reliable transport system.

The current mission was the second "demonstration" and although primarily a dummy run the spacecraft still carried fresh supplies for the space station.

Today's successful berthing means that the company can now work with NASA to schedule future supply missions.

Whilst SpaceX is the first private company to reach the space station, another U.S. company is preparing to show NASA what it can do. Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) is also working with NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, having been selected in 2008. 

Orbital is planning its first COTS test flight of its Cygnus spacecraft, to be launched atop of their Antares rocket, in the third quarter of 2012 followed by a demonstration flight to the ISS in the final quarter of 2012. Orbital, like SpaceX, also won a Commercial Resupply Services contract from NASA in December 2008. Orbital's is for 8 supply missions.

Providing the demonstration flights meet with NASA's approval, Orbital anticipates making its first cargo delivery to the ISS in the first quarter of 2013.

The private sector competition was discussed by Charles Bolden in his blog today "we’re working to promote competition and have multiple private sector partners so we don’t find ourselves in the situation we are today- having only one way to get to the space station."

The COTS projects are managed by NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office (C3PO). C3PO has the goal of creating a successful commercial space industry in the U.S. capable of providing safe, reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit.

According to NASA, COTS is "helping spur the innovation and development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles from commercial industry, creating a new way of delivering cargo to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station."

If successful, Orbital and SpaceX will add to the existing range of cargo ships that regularly supply the ISS, including Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Russia's Progress supply ship.

Whilst SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have NASA contracts for future cargo deliveries, regular supplies are currently delivered to the ISS by Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Russia's Progress supply ship.