Space Exploration Technologies Corp. docked its cargo ship at the International Space Station, marking a new era in for-profit spaceflight.
Closely held SpaceX, controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, is the first company to park a vehicle at the station. Its unmanned Dragon capsule made the connection yesterday at 12:02 p.m. New York time, according to Kyle Herring, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Even after a successful launch on May 22, there were no guarantees the craft would dock. The vehicle had to carefully maneuver close to the station before berthing with what the company described as “extreme precision.” Both the ship and station were traveling at about 17,500 miles per hour, orbiting Earth once every 90 minutes.
“There’s so much that could have gone wrong, and it went right,” Musk, 40, said in a press conference from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. “This really is I think going to be recognized as a significantly historic step forward in space travel.”
He said the timing of an initial public offering of SpaceX shares wouldn’t be affected by the successful docking. He told Bloomberg last month that an IPO was likely in 2013.
The U.S. is on its way to having a cost-effective space transportation system, Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a statement.
SpaceX, he said, should be thanked for “restoring U.S. access to the space station.”
NASA retired its shuttle fleet last year and wants the private sector to take over the job of carrying supplies and eventually astronauts to the station. The U.S. currently relies on the governments of Europe, Japan and Russia for that work.
After almost three years of delays in the mission, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon ship, on May 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A previously scheduled attempt on May 19 was called off with a half-second left in the countdown because of a faulty engine valve.
Astronaut Don Pettit, with help from colleague Andrew Kuipers, grabbed the craft with the 60-foot-long robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. New York time. Actual docking, or berthing, was completed at 12:02 p.m.
The Obama administration in 2010 canceled a program to develop a shuttle successor, betting the private sector would offer lower costs.
SpaceX is among several companies that have won a total of more than $1 billion in NASA contracts to develop the technology to transport cargo and crew into space.
SpaceX will begin regular supply to the station in September, NASA Station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters at the press briefing. The company and Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) will do the “lion’s share” of the station supply work, he said.
The others are Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nevada; and United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), based in Bethesda, Maryland.
Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), based in Arlington, Virginia, has teamed up with Lockheed and Astrium, part of Leiden, Netherlands-based European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., in offering the Liberty rocket to compete for NASA business.
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