SpaceX Ship Grabbed by Station’s Robotic Arm in Docking Prelude

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s supply ship was grabbed by the International Space Station’s robotic arm in preparation for a historic docking with the research laboratory.

Astronaut Don Pettit, with help from colleague Andre Kuipers, grabbed the craft with the 60-foot-long robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. New York time. Actual docking, or berthing, was scheduled to take place about three hours later, or about 1 p.m.

Berthing is critical because it will demonstrate that the craft can re-supply the station and complete a key test in the flight’s mission. SpaceX would be the first company to accomplish the feat.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration 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.

After almost three years of delays in the mission, billionaire Elon Musk’s 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.

“Dragon captured by the International Space Station! Just awesome ...” Musk tweeted today.

‘Confidence Boost’

A successful test of flight and navigation systems “was a big confidence boost,” John Couluris, SpaceX’s mission director, said after the test yesterday during a press conference organized by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

“It’s exciting to be an American and part of putting an American spacecraft into orbit,” he said from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

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.

The group includes Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Dulles, Virginia; Blue Origin LLC, based in Kent, Washington; Boeing Co., based in Chicago; and Paragon Space Development Corp., based in Tucson, Arizona.

The others are Sierra Nevada Corp., based in Sparks, Nevada; and United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Alliant Techsystems Inc., 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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