Space Exploration Technologies Corp. made history Friday by attaching the first private spacecraft to the international space station, a move that ultimately could change the economics and politics of U.S. space exploration.
The unmanned Dragon capsule’s halting, painstakingly slow final movements toward the station, where it was grabbed by a robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. Eastern daylight saving time, represents a first-of-its-kind achievement in the annals of space science. Until the Southern California company, known as SpaceX, succeeded in attaching the capsule to the space station, only governmental agencies had attempted such a rendezvous.
The Dragon was bolted to the space station, completing the berthing operation at shortly after noon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.
Astronauts Donald Pettit and Andre Kuipers used the space station’s flexible, roughly 50-foot mechanical arm to firmly snare the Dragon on the first attempt, after a few hours of maneuvering by the spacecraft. The docking was a complex technical feat that some of the company’s champions were skeptical would be achieved on the first try. Friday’s final methodical maneuvers turned out to be a fairly smooth process.
The vehicle’s arrival was a personal victory for Elon Musk, the closely held company’s founder, chief executive and chief designer, who managed to overcome a series of technical and financial crises that had threatened the start-up.
Following Dragon’s picture-perfect launch four days earlier. Mr. Musk said this mission set the stage for a new era of space exploration. But at the time, he stressed that there were still major challenges that could derail a docking attempt.
Friday’s activities represented a different sort of validation for leaders of NASA, who have used Mr. Musk’s company as a prime example of the benefits of outsourcing to private companies the job of delivering cargo, and ultimately astronauts, to the orbiting international laboratory.
Dragon’s arrival, capping a flight with remarkably few problems or unexpected wrinkles, made it the first U.S. vehicle of any kind to arrive at the station in about a year, since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles.
Before the linkup, mission controllers spent hours determining that Dragon’s clusters of thrusters and sensors were working properly by commanding a series of test maneuvers in which the capsule slowly drifted toward the capsule, gradually retreated and then held steady at a various distances, down to less than 100 feet.
Data from Dragon’s thermal imagers was reanalyzed to validate its accuracy. Around 9 a.m. EDT, as the drama’s climax neared and the capsule inched closer to the $ 100 billion space outpost, SpaceX engineers adjusted the operation of other distance-measuring equipment on Dragon.
Improvising, they tweaked part of the radar system to filter out confusing, stray reflections coming back from a certain portion of the space station. In order to see while they worked, company and NASA experts also had to make sure the final attempt to snatch the capsule occurred when the station was passing over an area that had daylight.
Considering that the station weighs about one million pounds and is circling the earth at roughly 17,000 miles an hour, engineers and mission controllers were extremely cautious and slow in ordering approach maneuvers. For space geeks around the world watching the drama play out on NASA’s website, the images resembled a super-slow motion videogame.
At an earlier point, as the Dragon capsule and the station streaked over Southern California before dawn, they were still were separated by about 700 feet. Astronaut Kuipers, who was monitoring Dragon’s progress from inside the station, calmly told mission controllers: “It looks very stable.”
Once the mechanical arm snared Dragon and video confirmed the capture, tension lifted. Astronaut Pettit, who had spent many months practicing the move in simulators and hours before had worried about the level of light to do his work, radioed NASA controllers in Houston with a quip.“It looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail,” he said.
In barely a decade, Mr. Musk has transformed a bare-bones company with makeshift offices and less than a dozen employees into a thriving enterprise that now runs a state-of-the-art manufacturing complex and employs some 1,700 people around the U.S.
SpaceX, which plans to launch NASA missions from the government’s Cape Canaveral space complex in Florida, wants to set up a private launch facility of its own, most likely along the Gulf Coast. Its order book includes more than $ 1 billion of future satellite launches for commercial operators, foreign government and research outfits. And the Air Force recently moved to make it easier for SpaceX to compete for launches of big military and spy satellites.
The SpaceX chief also has moved into uncharted territory by breaking from the industry’s traditional reliance on hiring subcontractors to design and manufacture key systems such as engines. Instead, SpaceX has recruited its own cadre of hard-charging engineers—some lured away from larger rivals—and concentrated on doing most of the work internally.
The company is one of several pursuing NASA funding to help develop private manned spacecraft, intended to transport astronauts into orbit during the second half of this decade. Competitors include closely held XCOR Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corp. and a start-up run by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc.
SpaceX “is really shocking a lot of people” with its accomplishments and “willingness to take on tough, risky challenges,” according to Lawrence Williams, an industry consultant who until recently was a close aide to Mr. Musk. “Traditional aerospace companies have to figure out a way to adjust, and some already are responding,” according to Mr. Williams.
One reaction from larger rivals: they are creating new units dedicated to pursuing commercial contracts, and to promise NASA those operations will be willing to sign fixed-price agreements similar to the transportation services contracts SpaceX accepted years ago,
NASA and SpaceX have predicted that relying on private cargo vehicles and space taxis to carry crews will be less expensive than having the space agency use traditional procurement methods to purchase next-generation rockets and spacecraft. If that holds true, it would deflect much of the congressional criticism directed against SpaceX and other commercial ventures seeking NASA business.
But SpaceX still needs to demonstrate the long-term strength of its business model, according to Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert and professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. NASA will only realize anticipated cost savings, according to Mr. McCurdy, “if there is a broader commercial market and SpaceX can spread its production costs” across all those orders.
“If it’s producing one [rocket] a year, the model simply won’t work,” according to Mr. McCurdy.
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