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Private spacecraft connects to space station

By the CNN Wire Staff
May 25, 2012 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
  • NEW: The attachment process was completed just after noon ET
  • NEW: SpaceX founder Elon Musk praises the mission's success
  • NEW: A NASA official says Dragon performed "nearly flawlessly"
  • It's carrying food, clothing, supplies for scientific experiments and other cargo

(CNN) -- A private spacecraft connected to the International Space Station on Friday, a milestone in a new era of commercial space flight.

It happened just before 10 a.m. ET when the station's robotic arm captured the unmanned SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The process of attaching the Dragon to the space station was completed at 12:02 p.m. ET.

The process began almost two hours later than planned while engineers fixed part of the radar system aboard the Dragon that measured distance to the space station, NASA said.

"Looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail," astronaut Don Pettit said after capturing the capsule with the robotic arm, according to NASA.

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The next step is for the Dragon capsule to unload its cargo, which includes food, clothing, 22 pounds of computer equipment and 46 pounds of supplies for science experiments.

"There's so much that could've gone wrong and it went right," said SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, who earlier called the successful capture "awesome."

NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini said the spacecraft performed "nearly flawlessly." He said SpaceX did a "fantastic job" in designing and operating the Dragon.

The Dragon capsule launched Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA said it authorized the flight after Dragon completed all tests in preparation for reaching the space station and the station mission management team completed a thorough review of its progress.

Connecting to the space station required NASA's approval in a staged approach that SpaceX called "the most difficult aspect of the mission."

Stellar week for SpaceX founder Elon Musk

The mission, hailed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as a step toward a new future of private innovation in the space industry, comes as government funding of the space program decreases.

Dragon was carried into orbit by the Falcon 9 rocket. Dragon orbited the Earth on Tuesday and Wednesday, "firing its thrusters to catch up to the space station," SpaceX said.

SpaceX orbital mission: Just the beginning

The space station crew plans to open Dragon's hatch Saturday, it said.

Under the mission plan, Dragon will remain attached to the space station for two weeks before it plummets back into the atmosphere and splashes into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast, according to SpaceX.

It will return with science experiments, hardware and used gear.

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Tuesday's launch marked the culmination of six years of preparation to bring commercial flights to the space station after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet last year.

The cremated human remains of 320 people from more than a dozen countries were in the second stage of the Falcon and will orbit the Earth. Celestis, the company that provides memorial spaceflights, said the remains included those of James Doohan, who played Mr. Scott in the "Star Trek" television and movie series.

A portion of the cremated remains of Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon Cooper were also on board.

Eventually, the portion of the rocket carrying the remains will fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

Celestis Inc. charges families $2,995 to launch 1 gram of remains in this type of memorial spaceflight.

Private space travel: A new era begins?

The launch is an important step for NASA and the United States, which currently has no means of independently reaching space. NASA relies on the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to orbit.

The first attempt to launch Falcon 9 was halted Saturday when a flight computer detected high pressure in an engine combustion chamber. Workers replaced the valve Saturday, SpaceX said.

The company plans 11 more flights to the space station.

One of a handful of private companies receiving funds from NASA to develop a space taxi system, SpaceX hopes the experience with the cargo flights will help the company reach its goal of carrying astronauts aboard the Dragon.

The company is developing a heavy-lift rocket with twice the cargo capability of the space shuttle and hopes to build a spacecraft that could carry a crew to Mars.

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