Space Station's Robot Arm Grabs SpaceX Capsule

If all continues to go well, a private spacecraft sent to orbit by the company SpaceX is expected to dock with the International Space Station on Friday. The mission is historic because it is the first for the commercial spaceflight industry.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Right now, about 200 miles above the planet, a private spacecraft is making history. Dragon, an unmanned capsule sent up by a company called SpaceX, is set to dock with the International Space Station. It will be the first private spaceship to ever dock with that station.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has been closely following the mission and is here to tell us what's happening right now. Good morning.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So what is Dragon doing?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, it's orbiting the Earth right outside of the International Space Station, attached to the station's robotic arm. So we can see a view sometimes on NASA TV when they show the station's cameras pointing to it. It looks like this white capsule looming in the dark, and you can see the station's long white arm latched onto it.

Just a little while ago, NASA gave the go for space station astronaut Don Pettit to use the arm to grab the capsule. And he did it very quickly, and then he was joking that like it looks like we've got a Dragon by the tail, and he said, boy, you know, this simulation went really well, I'm ready to do it for real, and you could hear people clapping and cheering. So this was a big moment for SpaceX and a big moment for NASA too.

Soon they'll be able to use that arm to move Dragon over to a docking place on the station and actually attach it so that later astronauts can go inside, you know, open the hatch. Dragon doesn't dock automatically on its own. It needs that extra help, you know, with the arm, to put it into the final position. But this is a big deal. No private space ship has ever reached the station before. And it's a first for SpaceX and a first for the world.

MONTAGNE: And how important will this kind of private spaceship be now that NASA's space shuttles aren't flying?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the plan is for these kinds of private ships to become very important. NASA wants to focus on exploration beyond the station, deeper out into space. So the idea is to let industry take over routine trips up to the station and back. NASA actually has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for cargo delivery. It has a similar contract with another company called Orbital Sciences Corporation.

And there's some other companies that are also wanting to carry people and cargo back and forth to space. Until now it's only been big government space agencies that have done it - only Russia, Japan, Europe, the United States have sent vehicles to the station.

So the success of this mission is a very big deal. It could do away with a lot of doubts about whether private companies are up to this challenge.

MONTAGNE: And Dragon is just carrying food and supplies this time around, this trip. But how soon could it actually carry people?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Pretty soon. In just a few years. That's the goal of SpaceX. They designed this Dragon capsule with people in mind. So to carry people they would just do modifications of this existing capsule. The next American spacecraft to carry up people could be a private spaceship like this one.

MONTAGNE: And just finally - Dragon, assuming it does dock today as planned and really is there in the space station, when will the astronauts open the hatch and go inside?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So that's planned for tomorrow. Basically they'd open the hatch, go in and unload all the stuff. And then they'd pack the capsule full of things they want to send home and Dragon would depart from the station next week and splash down in the Pacific, where it would be recovered.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

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