Video still from NASA TV via AP

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The International Space Station's robotic arm grabs the Dragon capsule Wednesday (from NASA video).

Video still from NASA TV via AP

Space Station Arm "Tames" Dragon Capsule—SpaceX Docking Is a First

Unprecedented cargo run evokes early days of airline industry, expert says.

For the second time in five months, the commercial rocket company SpaceX has successfully docked its Dragon capsule at the International Space Station (ISS)—this time on its first official cargo run under a supply contract with NASA.

"Looks like we've tamed the Dragon," station commander Sunita Williams, a U.S. Navy officer, told controllers on the ground after the ISS's robotic arm had grabbed the unmanned craft just before 7 a.m. ET, accomplished with the assistance of Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshideh. (Related: "Robot Arm to Grab Robotic Ship—A Space Station First.")

"We're happy she's on board with us."

SpaceX's Dragon—the first and only commercial spacecraft to berth at the station—made contact with the station 252 miles (406 kilometers) above Earth. The capsule is packed with nearly a thousand pounds (450 kilograms) of essential supplies and gear, as well some arguably nonessential chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream and, for a school science experiment, some Silly Putty.

High-flying SpaceX, founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, won a nearly U.S. $1.6 billion contract with NASA in 2008 to supply the space station via a dozen flights in the years ahead.

Unlike any government-owned capsules supplying the ISS, the SpaceX Dragon is designed to return intact to Earth, and so can be used as a two-way ferry. The capsule brought back 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of science experiments and space hardware after its test berthing in May and will do the same later this month.

SpaceX Contract an Investment in the Future?

Today's first formal berthing at the International Space Station under the NASA cargo-supply contract was broadly cheered as a milestone, and perhaps a harbinger of much more to come.

"I think it would be fair to say the successful docking under the NASA contract is parallel to the early days of the commercial airline industry," said John Logsdon, space policy emeritus professor at George Washington University and longtime NASA adviser.

"The government paid airline owners to deliver the mail and gave the early industry the financial support it needed to grow," he said. "Clearly, NASA is hoping the same will happen here—that giving commercial space companies contracts to supply the space station will act as a huge boost to the early commercial space industry."

In a statement issued after the berthing, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said: "This marks the start of a new era of exploration for the United States, one where we will reduce the cost of missions to low-Earth orbit so we can focus our resources on deep-space human missions back around the moon, to an asteroid, and eventually to Mars."

While SpaceX is the only commercial rocket company to fly to the International Space Station so far, several others—including Orbital Sciences, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin—are developing systems to carry cargo and ultimately crew as well.

The push to have private companies handle some of the basic space transport to the ISS began under U.S. President George W. Bush but picked up steam under President Obama—often against strong opposition from legislators in the U.S. Congress, who were largely concerned with NASA job losses and crew safety.

Mars or Bust?

With three successful Dragon launches now and two berthings at the ISS, the viability of commercial space transport is by all accounts improving. Nonetheless, Musk, speaking before Sunday's launch, said it's too soon to consider the SpaceX launches routine.

His assessment was soon proved correct during takeoff with the failure of one of the nine Falcon 9 rockets intended to boost Dragon beyond Earth's atmosphere. But the lapse didn't affect the launch, SpaceX officials said, because the propulsion system was designed to launch without all rockets firing, as are those commissioned by NASA.

The importance of SpaceX and the other commercial space companies that will follow grew substantially after NASA retired the last of the space shuttles in 2011. Without the shuttle, the United States has had no way to ferry cargo or crew to and from the station, and has purchased rides from Russia and Japan as well as from European operators.

Illustrating that reality, the Dragon capsule is currently docked next to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that brought commander Williams and others to the station and will bring them back to Earth. Next to the Soyuz was an automated Russian craft, a Progress cargo ship.

Originally scheduled to be opened for unloading on Thursday, the Dragon capsule's hatch was instead unlocked at 1:40 p.m. ET Wednesday. ISS crew members had raced through post-berthing procedures, NASA explained.

After several weeks, the capsule is to return to Earth with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on October 28.

While the main focus of SpaceX has been the effort to bring cargo—and within a few years, astronauts as well—to the space station, CEO Musk's ambitions are far larger. He got into the space business, he's said, with the ultimate goal of building rockets to carry substantial numbers of people to Mars.

Author of the National Geographic e-book Mars Landing 2012, Marc Kaufman has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including the past 12 as a science and space writer, foreign correspondent, and editor for the Washington Post. He is also author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, published in 2011, and has spoken extensively to crowds across the United States and abroad about astrobiology. He lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife, Lynn Litterine.