SpaceX has done it. At 12:02 p.m. EDT, the company's Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft in history to be captured and berthed to the International Space Station, and the first U.S. spacecraft to visit the ISS since the Space Shuttle Atlantis last July.
A Mission briefing is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. EDT to discuss today's historic achievement. Watch it live on NASA TV, or via the USTREAM feed below.
Throughout much of the night, SpaceX's Dragon capsule had been engaged in a low-Earth-orbit game of red light/green light, approaching and retreating from the ISS in a series of checkpoints designed to test the onboard systems required to bring the capsule within reach of the Space Station's Canadarm2 — the outpost's highly sophisticated, 60-foot-long robotic claw crane.
A pivotal moment came at 9:56 a.m. EDT, when NASA astronaut Don Pettit used the arm to grab hold of Dragon, which had come to rest a mere 33 feet from the Space Station's doorstep.
"It looks like we've got us a Dragon by the tail," Pettit told Mission Control.
It was another two hours before NASA astronauts reeled Dragon in, carefully guiding the capsule towards the ISS's Harmony module where it ultimately berthed at 12:02 EDT (Dragon is said to have "berthed" with the ISS rather than "docked" because it did not mate with the Station by its own power). Pictured here is the Dragon capsule, bolted securely to the ISS.
If all goes according to plan, ISS crew members will open the capsule's hatch Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m. EDT and begin unloading the spacecraft's cargo. After that, it'll be a week before Dragon disembarks on its return trip to Earth. Assuming all goes well, Dragon's splashdown in the Pacific will mark the first successful completion of what NASA hopes will be many future government/commercial spaceflight collaborations in the years to come.
"I don't have words enough to express…the excitement and elation that we feel here at SpaceX" said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a press conference held earlier this afternoon. "It's just a fantastic day... for the county and the world, [this is] going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel, and hopefully the first of many to come. This is a fantastic thing, but there's going to be even better things in the future."
What kinds of things? Try interplanetary space travel:
"I'm really excited because this was a crucial step," explained Musk. "The chances of [us becoming a multiplanetary species] just became much more likely, so people should be excited about that."
A huge congrats to SpaceX and NASA for pulling this off. History was made today, folks; a new era in spaceflight is upon us.