5-25-2012Dragon makes history with space station docking
The private company SpaceX made history Friday with the docking of its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, the most impressive feat yet in turning routine spaceflight over to the commercial sector.
It marked the first time a business enterprise delivered a supply ship to the space station.
"There's so much that could have gone wrong and it went right," said an elated Elon Musk, the young, driven billionaire behind SpaceX.
SpaceX still has to get its Dragon back next week with a load of science gear; the retro bell-shaped capsule is designed to splash down into the ocean, in the style of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs
Although cargo hauls have become routine, Friday's linkup was significant in that an individual company pulled it off. That chore was previously reserved for a small, elite group of government agencies.
Not only that, the reusable SpaceX Dragon is designed to safely return items, a huge benefit that disappeared with NASA's space shuttles.
Without the shuttle, NASA astronauts must go through Russia, an expensive and embarrassing situation for the U.S. after a half-century of orbital self-sufficiency. Once companies master supply runs, they hope to tackle astronaut ferry runs.
Musk, who founded SpaceX a decade ago and helped create PayPal, said he can have astronauts riding his Dragon capsules to orbit in three or four years. He also runs the electric car company Tesla Motors.
The space station has been relying on Russian, Japanese and European cargo ships for supplies ever since the shuttles retired. None of those, however, can bring anything of value back; they're simply loaded with trash and burn up in the atmosphere.