NASA robotic arm grabs, docks SpaceX Dragon

Commercial mission delivers 1,000 pounds of supplies to space station

A robotic arm onboard the International Space Station reached out and grabbed hold of the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship today, attaching the commercial craft to the station.

The station's Canadarm captured the spacecraft at 6:56 a.m. EDT as it flew within about 32 feet of the orbiter, which was traveling 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean, just west of Baja California. At 9:03 a.m., the Dragon was attached to the space station.

Calling it a "key milestone in a new era of commercial spaceflight, NASA announced that the hatch between the SpaceX spacecraft and the space station was opened this afternoon.

The Dragon delivered 882 pounds of supplies to the station, including 260 pounds of crew supplies, 390 pounds of scientific research equipment and 225 pounds of hardware.

"This marks the start of a new era of exploration for the United States, one where we will reduce the cost of missions to low-Earth orbit so we can focus our resources on deep space human missions back around the moon, to an asteroid and eventually to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement."

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday night, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.

The mission marks a new chapter in America's space program with the first official commercial mission to resupply the space station.

In May, SpaceX successfully completed a demo cargo flight to the space station.

This week's effort is the first part of the company's four-year, $1.6 billion contract to launch a dozen operational missions to the station.

The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to spend 18 days attached to the station before returning for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the Southern California coast.

Dragon is scheduled to return a total of 1,673 pounds of used supplies and equipment.

NASA noted that the ability to bring cargo, including concluded scientific experiments and waste, is critical to running the space station. The space agency noted that research and scientific samples largely have been piling up on the space station since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in the summer of 2011.

NASA now depends on companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the space station.

As the space agency's looks for assistance for its short-haul missions to the space station, it will focus on building high-powered engines and robotics, as well as preparing for more ambitious missions to the moon, asteroids and Mars.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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