SpaceX Dragon spacecraft makes history, docks at International Space Station

A private spacecraft docked with the International Space Station on Friday, a milestone in a new era of commercial space flight.

The docking happened just before 10 a.m., almost two hours later than planned. A radar system aboard the unmanned SpaceX Dragon that measures distance to the station had picked up a different part of the space station, meaning it could not dock properly, NASA said.

The Dragon capsule launched Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying food, clothing, cargo, 22 pounds of computer equipment and 46 pounds of supplies for science experiments.

NASA said it authorized the flight after Dragon successfully completed all tests in preparation for docking and the space station mission management team completed a thorough review of its progress.

Plans call for the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station to capture the spacecraft with a robotic arm. Connecting to the space station will require NASA's approval in a staged approach that SpaceX called "the most difficult aspects of the mission."

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The mission, hailed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as a step toward a new future of private innovation in the space industry, comes as government funding of the space program decreases in an era of fiscal austerity.

Dragon was carried into orbit by the Falcon 9 rocket. Dragon then orbited the Earth on Tuesday and Wednesday, "firing its thrusters to catch up to the space station," SpaceX said.

If Friday's connection goes as planned, the space station crew will open Dragon's hatch Saturday, it said.

Under the mission plan, Dragon will remain attached to the space station for two weeks before it plummets back into the atmosphere and splashes into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast, according to SpaceX.

It will return with science experiments, hardware and used gear.

Tuesday's launch marked the culmination of six years of preparation to bring commercial flights to the space station after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet last year. It's backed by entrepreneur Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal.

The cremated human remains of 320 from more than a dozen countries were in the second stage of the Falcon and will orbit the Earth. Celestis, the company that provides memorial spaceflights, said the remains included those of James Doohan, who played Mr. Scott in the Star Trek television and movie series.

A portion of the cremated remains of Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon Cooper were also on board.

Eventually, the portion of the rocket carrying the remains will fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Celestis Inc. charges families $2,995 to launch 1 gram of remains in this type of memorial spaceflight.

The launch is an important step for NASA and the United States, which currently has no means of independently reaching space. NASA relies on the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to orbit.

The first attempt to launch Falcon 9 was halted Saturday when a flight computer detected high pressure in an engine combustion chamber. Workers replaced the valve Saturday, SpaceX said.

The company plans 11 more flights to the space station.

One of a handful of private companies receiving funds from NASA to develop a space taxi system, SpaceX hopes the experience with the cargo flights will help the company reach its goal of carrying astronauts aboard the Dragon.

The company is developing a heavy-lift rocket with twice the cargo capability of the space shuttle, and also dreams of building a spacecraft that could carry a crew to Mars.


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