NASA hits new frontier with historic SpaceX rendezvous

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. Eastern time, astronauts using a robotic arm on board the space station grabbed hold of the Dragon unmanned cargo spacecraft. The arm is maneuvering the Dragon into a position where it will be attached to the outside of the orbiter at 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 capsule.

The cargo ship and the space station were both traveling more than 17,000 mph and were 251 miles above Australia when the rendezvous took place.

Once the cargo ship was maneuvered into position and then caught with a delicate robotic grab, SpaceX became the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft that was 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 began with a launch on Tuesday, is the first of what may be many U.S. commercial flights to the space station now that NASA's fleet of space shuttles has been retired.

Without the shuttles to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the space station, NASA is looking to hire commercial companies to do the job. 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 lbs. of food and clothing, along with student-designed experiments, according to NASA. The spacecraft can hold 7,300 lbs. of cargo, but since this is a test flight, cargo was limited to materials that were deemed important but not critical.

The cargo ship is expected to remain docked with 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 and on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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