The world's first private spacecraft has flown by the International Space Station and completed its first series of maneuvering tests to show that the rocket company SpaceX can deliver cargo to the orbiting platform 200 miles above Earth.
At about 7:30 a.m. EDT, the Dragon space capsule made its closest pass to the station, 1.5 miles below it, after establishing communications with the station. It's scheduled to remain in that position until about 8 p.m. tonight, when Dragon's thrusters are scheduled to move the capsule away from the station, preparing for another pass on Friday.
If all the data being reviewed on Earth checks out, and the Dragon completes its loop back behind the station today, it would get approval to return early Friday morning and berth with the station.
Then on Saturday morning, astronauts aboard the station would unload food, clothing, supplies and a couple of science experiment kits, inaugurating a new era of commercial space and a generation of "space taxis."
The tests this morning were simple, but critical. NASA was reporting no problems. A full briefing will be presented later this morning.
Early this morning, controllers from SpaceX and NASA and astronauts aboard the space station linked the GPS systems onboard the Dragon capsule and the station, demonstrating that they can precisely calibrate the two orbiting vessels' movements.
Then shortly before 7 a.m., Russian Flight Engineer Andre Kuipers pushed a button on a little black box sent to the space station by SpaceX, and a strobe light began flashing on the Dragon, still a few miles behind. Minutes later, cameras caught the approaching spaceship, and NASA broadcast the historic first pass of the world's first private spaceship to travel to the space station.
The rendezvous began at 4:43 a.m. when Dragon fired its thrusters for the second time this morning. ISS Flight Engineer Don Pettit was first to see the Dragon approaching, reporting "laying eyes" on the tiny dot of a vessel shortly before 6 a.m.
Ironically, the Dragon's closest encounter, and the thruster firing that ended the rendezvous, occurred during a communications blackout, and no one but the on-board astronauts saw the events.
If NASA deems today's tests a success, Dragon will re-approach the station early Friday morning and fly within 30 feet of it. The station's astronauts will then use its remote arm to grab the capsule, mate it to the station's docking hatch and lock it in place. On Saturday morning, the astronauts will open the hatches and unload about 1,100 pounds of supplies on board the spaceship.
If this test flight is completely successful, SpaceX could immediately qualify to begin work under a $1.5-billion, five-year contract to send 12 cargo flights to the space station, according to NASA Deputy Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration Operations.
Ultimately, the company hopes to deliver astronauts — Dragon is designed to carry up to seven — to the station as well.