As we speak, the SpaceX Dragon capsule is hooking up with the International Space Station. That’s right folks: NASA and SpaceX have officially welcomed in the private space era. At 9:56 eastern, the robotic arm of the ISS reached out and snatched the Dragon, which had been chilling in the 250m holding zone for a few hours prior while NASA finished up some final testing before the historic docking. High fives to astronaut Don Pettit for being the man behind the arm.
"Houston Station, looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail," Pettit told ground control, dropping the Armstrongian quote of the private space era.
Here’s how it went down:
This NASA graphic shows the complicated flight path and “fly under” the Dragon capsule took to test its navigation and control systems before docking today.
The ISS, as viewed by one of the Dragon’s thermal imagers from its 250m holding pattern.
The view of the Dragon from the ISS as it approached.
The ISS arm grapples the Dragon capsule. Success!
Over the next couple hours, SpaceX, NASA, and the ISS will be running tests and prepping for the most difficult part of the process: the actual docking. (Actually, the teams refer to it as “berthing,” because the Dragon capsule is passively being brought to the ISS. Considering this is the first time the system has been used live, it’s going to be a very cautious process.
If all goes according to plan, SpaceX would be the first private organization to join the quartet of government agencies — NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — to have built a vehicle capable of delivering a payload to the ISS. Should the berthing go smoothly, the Dragon hatch will be opened early Saturday morning, allowing the six astronauts on the ISS to unload Dragon’s half-ton payload of flood, clothes, batteries, and 15 student-designed experiments. In return, the astronauts are expected to load about 1,455 pounds of gear back onto the Dragon for its return trip. Here’s to hoping that soon-to-be-delivered payload included some champagne.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.