SpaceX Docking A Boost For Spaceflight Industry

For the first time, a spacecraft sent up by a private company has successfully reached the international space station. A NASA astronaut on the station used a robotic arm to grab the unmanned Dragon capsule Friday morning.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Today marks the beginning of what could be a new era in space exploration.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SIEGEL: Celebration at the California headquarters of SpaceX. That's the company behind Dragon, which today became the first privately built spacecraft to dock at the International Space Station. The unmanned cargo delivery mission has gone almost flawlessly.

As we hear from NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, skeptics will now have a harder time arguing against the commercial space flight industry.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Dragon is a white capsule the size of a small truck with a couple of black solar panels that stick out like wings. Earlier today, it crept closer and closer to the space station, stopping about 30 feet away. NASA astronaut Don Pettit maneuvered a robotic arm to grab it as controllers watch and waited both at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, and at Houston's mission control.

DON PETTIT: Capture is confirmed.

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GREENFIELDBOYCE: Everyone celebrated, and the astronauts sounded elated.

PETTIT: Houston, Station, it looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The crew then used the arm to move Dragon to its docking port. They'll open the hatch tomorrow, start unloading the food and other supplies and send Dragon home next week. SpaceX and NASA spent years preparing for this moment. Now that the space shuttles are retired, NASA wants private companies to start carrying up cargo and even astronauts, hopefully, in just a few years. This first cargo mission was a partnership between the veteran government agency and a startup that draws its inspiration from Silicon Valley.

Their joint press conference after the docking reflected those two different cultures. It started out at Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, sat in front of reporters in a suit and tie. He soberly but sincerely heaped praise on SpaceX.

MIKE SUFFREDINI: They completely built and tested and flew this spacecraft in a manner that is really - has been just remarkable. It's a remarkable ride.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said SpaceX did have to deal with a few glitches.

SUFFREDINI: But that just showed you how good their team was. It wasn't only a very, very capable spacecraft, but their team really took on some challenges along the way.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then a video link connected the formal briefing room with SpaceX headquarters, where the scene was much more lively. Elon Musk, the wealthy Internet entrepreneur who founded the company a decade ago, was wearing a black T-shirt and track jacket, sitting in front of his thrilled employees. He said he didn't have the words to express the emotions at SpaceX.

ELON MUSK: There's just so much that could have gone wrong, and it went right. And we were able to overcome some last-minute issues with some fast thinking.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thanked his whole SpaceX team.

MUSK: You guys are awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Their cheers lasted a long time. Someone shouted we love you, Elon.

MUSK: I love you guys, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He said they might have a bit of champagne now, even though they had previously banned alcohol from the building.

MUSK: It's best to be very sober in these circumstances...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUSK: ...until the deed is done.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The deed is a huge boost not just for SpaceX but for the entire commercial space flight industry. John Logsdon is with the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

JOHN LOGSDON: I think the success of this mission will make it harder to be skeptical of the ability of the private sector to carry off a complex undertaking like rendezvous and berthing with the space station.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Logsdon says Elon Musk is sometimes criticized for making what seemed like bold exaggerated claims. But it reminds Logsdon of a famous quote: It's not bragging if you can do it.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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