NASA hits new frontier with historic SpaceX docking

NASA hits new frontier with historic SpaceX docking

Traveling at 17,000 mph, space station's robotic arm captures Dragon spacecraft

A U.S. commercial spacecraft docked with the International Space Station on Friday and history was made.

At 9:56 a.m. EDT, astronauts using a robotic arm on board the space station, grabbed hold of the unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft. The arm is maneuvering the Dragon into a position where it will be attached to the outside of the orbiter around 4:30 p.m.

"Looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail," said astronaut Don Pettit after using the robotic arm to capture the Dragon capsule.

The cargo ship and the space station were both traveling more than 17,000 miles per hour and 251 miles above Australia when they rendezvoused.

The maneuver of moving the cargo ship into position and then one delicate robotic grab made SpaceX the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft that was captured and docked to the space station.

"A new era for U.S. & commercial space!" said NASA in a tweet after the Dragon was captured.

The mission, which was launched Tuesday, is the first U.S. commercial flight to the space station since NASA's fleet of space shuttles was retired in the summer of 2011.

Without the shuttles to ferry astronauts and cargo back and forth to the space station, NASA is looking to hire commercial companies to build space taxis. By leaving this work to commercial companies, NASA scientists and engineers would be free to focus on building high-powered engines and robotics, and to prepare for more ambitious missions to the moon, asteroids or Mars.

The Dragon cargo capsule is carrying about 1,200 pounds of food and clothing, along with student-designed experiments, according to NASA. The spacecraft can hold 7,300 pounds of cargo, but since this is a test flight, cargo was limited to important-but-not critical materials.

The cargo ship is expected to be attached to the space station for three weeks so astronauts can unload it and then reload it with used scientific equipment. Astronauts will then use a robotic arm to detach the capsule and release it back into orbit.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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