Given that the Dragon is a brand new type of vehicle and this is a test flight, the space agency insisted on proceeding cautiously. A collision by vehicles traveling at orbital speed — 17,500 mph — could prove disastrous for the space station. NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, said the way the SpaceX team handled the problem and the entire operation was "remarkable."
President Barack Obama is pushing commercial ventures in orbit so NASA can concentrate on grander destinations like asteroids and Mars. Obama's chief scientific adviser, John Holdren, called Friday's linkup "an achievement of historic scientific and technological significance."
"It's essential we maintain such competition and fully support this burgeoning and capable industry to get U.S. astronauts back on American launch vehicles as soon as possible," he said in a statement.
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.
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.
By contrast, the Dragon is designed to safely re-enter the atmosphere, parachuting into the ocean like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules did back in the 1960s. Assuming all goes well Friday, the space station's six-man crew will release the Dragon next Thursday after filling it with science experiments and equipment.
Going into Tuesday's launch of this Dragon, NASA had contributed $381 million to SpaceX in seed money. The company has invested more than $1 billion in this commercial effort over the past 10 years.
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