Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) made history May 25 as the first private company to dock a spacecraft with the International Space Station.
When the company’s Dragon capsule completed its berthing at 12:02 p.m., it joined just four governments—the United States, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency—that had previously achieved the feat. The demonstration flight marks a milestone toward SpaceX’s goal of launching regular missions to resupply the station.
NASA astronaut Don Pettit opened the hatch between the Harmony module of the International Space Station and the capsule at 5:53 a.m. Eastern time May 26 to begin four days of operations to upload more than 1,000 pounds of cargo from the spacecraft and reload it with experiments and cargo to return to Earth. The spacecraft is scheduled for splashdown May 31.
The docking is SpaceX’s second mission under an agreement with NASA to develop resupply capabilities for the station. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called it a “critical step in the future of American spaceflight.”
The view from up here: A camera looks out from the Dragon spacecraft as it orbits the Earth. Credit: SpaceX
“Now that a U.S. company has proven its ability to resupply the space station, it opens a new frontier for commercial opportunities in space—and new job creation opportunities right here in the U.S.,” Bolden said in a media release. “By handing off space station transportation to the private sector, NASA is freed up to carry out the really hard work of sending astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before. The Obama Administration has set us on an ambitious path forward and the NASA and SpaceX teams are proving they are up to the task.”
While its Dragon capsule was orbiting the earth on a demonstration flight for NASA, SpaceX announced its first commercial contract for the Falcon Heavy rocket.
Satellite service provider Intelsat announced on May 29 the agreement to launch an Intelsat satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. The Falcon Heavy rocket is built on the same architecture as the Falcon 9 rocket, which launched the Dragon spacecraft into orbit, but with three times the number of first-stage engines.
The decision to shutter the space shuttle program and partner with private companies for this type of mission—and to rely on Russia to carry American astronauts aboard the Soyuz spacecraft in the short term—has garnered criticism from others that the United States has abdicated its leadership in space. Astronauts from another era of American space travel, including Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, have spoken out against the plan, which leaves the United States without the capability to send humans to space until private companies can prove they are capable of supporting manned spaceflight (see 30:15 of the May 24 AOPA Live This Week ). SpaceX has its eye on that goal: It says Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket, which carried the capsule to orbit, were designed with manned missions in mind.