Dragon Becomes First Private Spacecraft To Berth With ISS

The Dragon spacecraft became the first U.S. spacecraft to arrive at the International Space Station since space shuttle Atlantis last July. Photo Credit: NASA TV

Space Exploration Technologies or “SpaceX” made history at 11:52 a.m. EDT when its Dragon spacecraft was berthed to the International Space Station (ISS). The arrival of the Dragon marked a three-day period starting on May 22 at 3:44 a.m. when SpaceX launched the cargo vessel to the ISS. From there the reusable spacecraft met milestone-after-milestone. The spacecraft conducted all of the maneuvers required under the second demonstration flight requirements of the $1.6 billion Commercial Transportation Services (COTS) contract that SpaceX has entered into with NASA.

Today’s historic events come less than a year after the final mission of the space shuttle era, STS-135. This flight was conducted by space shuttle Atlantis which wrapped up the shuttle era in July of 2011. This makes Dragon, a commercial vehicle, the first U.S. spacecraft to travel to the ISS since then. The official time when the berthing occurred was 12:02 a.m. EDT, making the mission length a total of 3 days, 8 hours and eighteen minutes.

SpaceX's Mission Control in Hawthorne California at the moment the Dragon spacecraft was grappled by the space station's robotic arm. Photo Credit: SpaceX

NASA Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini was joined by, NASA COTS Program Manager Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a press conference to discuss the historic event.

“We had a really great day in space, my hats off to the SpaceX team… We started out with the Dragon spacecraft just in front of the ISS then we began maneuvering the spacecraft around and under the space station eventually seeing the spacecraft end up where it began its maneuvers. This gave us the opportunity to see things that we had not seen before, to learn how the Dragon flies,” Ridings said. “Flying in space really with two dynamic vehicles is first about work and second about trust. So for the last seven years we’ve worked with the SpaceX team to help build that teamwork, that trust.”

The mood in Hawthorne was jubilant with frequent (and loud cheers) drowning out the press conference’s speakers. Musk and company rolled with it, acknowledging that the team at SpaceX had worked hard and had earned the right to celebrate.

Musk went on to thank the entire SpaceX team, which caused them to erupt in cheers, one cried out, “We love you!” Musk responded with, “I love you too!”

The Dragon spacecraft, in the grip of the space station's robotic arm, awaits berthing to the ISS. Photo Credit: NASA TV

This marks the second (and third – more on that in a moment) demonstration flight for SpaceX under the COTS contract. Initially, SpaceX was to just rendezvous with the ISS, however, SpaceX lobbied for and received permission to conduct the objectives of both the second and third demonstration flights – into one. If any of the objectives are not met – a third demonstration flight will be conducted. At this point in the mission – this looks very unlikely of being required. SpaceX has met each milestone placed in front of it.

“This has been the culmination of an enormous amount of work by the SpaceX team in partnership with NASA and we’re just incredibly excited…There is just so much that could have gone wrong – but it all went right,” Musk said. “It’s just a fantastic day, a great day for the country and the world and I think it will be recognized as a historical step forward in space travel.”

The Falcon 9 rockets arcs out away from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station - and history. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Seibert / Wired4Space


Missions » ISS » Missions » ISS » COTS »


  1. Wow that was exciting …Like watching grass grow….I never realized just how long this process takes for these spaceships to connect to ISS…And yet some engineer thinks were ready to build a full size Enterprise from Star Trek….

    My guess is that this will be painfully slow dealing with NASA and ISS and things won’t get really exciting until SpaceX is going to a BA330…

  2. Thanks for this informative article. It contrasts sharply with Jim Hillhouse’ bitter sounding assasination rehashing Richard Shelby’s anti-commercial bias.
    It was odd that Jim hillhouse was so bent out of shape (http://www.americaspace.org/?p=2816) about the small amount of money given to spacex when NASA and its contractors consumed billions making their giant ares sounding rocket and the billion wasted on the venture star mockup and the billions wasted on the orient express and the 1.5 billion consumed for each of the space shuttle flights. Spacex has actually invested far more than NASA in this project and unlike NASA, spacex money was actually it’s own and not taken from the taxpayers. As for the delays, these are small in comparison to NASAs and without the 10x-25x cost overruns. Shuttle flights were expected for cost $60 million each in 2011 dollars, not 1.5 billion. The iss grew about 10x in price.

    • Funny, I remember that too….The fact that the Shuttles were going to fly every 3 or 4 days and reduce the cost to $100 per pound to orbit…The MSM and NASA never points out that the Shuttle Program was a huge Failure….

      • Let’s not forget that part of the reason the Shuttle didn’t live up to it’s promise was that Congress only allocated half of what NASA estimated it would cost to develop and build the Shuttle, and then was surprised when the result wasn’t as good.

        • I saw a presentation by Aaron Cohen, former JSC Director, who said that OMB actually pulled a fairly nasty maneuver on NASA’s Shuttle program as it was just starting. Rather than fund at the FY numbers that the Shuttle program was to begin, OMB, which had opposed the Shuttle program, funded it based on the previous FY but without adjusting for inflation. So at the very get-go, the program suffered something like a 7%-8% budget cut with that one little accounting trick.

      • How was Shuttle a “huge Failure”? Did it not serve as our national means for human access to space? Launch Hubble? Build the Space Station? Expand our knowledge of hypersonics?

        This would be the equivalent of classifying anything you’ve planned not meeting its estimated cost/benefit numbers as failures. That’s an unreasonable expectation.

        • Just because something is useful and teaches us things, does not make it a success.

          By the criteria that it was sold, (multiple flights a week, costs being incredibly low) it was a failure.

    • According to Elon himself, during his interview on “60 Minutes”, over $100 million was put in SpaceX by investors, while NASA, or the tax-payers really, put in over $376 million.

      Dragon’s docking with ISS not only marks a first by a commercial entity, but also the beginning of CRS by SpaceX. Three launches will not determine whether SpaceX can profitably perform on the CRS contract, which is a fixed-price contract, only time will answer that. But during that time, both SpaceX and OSC will demonstrate that it is possible to deliver cargo to ISS on a regular basis and do so profitably enough to stay in business.

      I’m just glad that the Bush Administration created the COTS program that gave two companies the chance to break new ground.

      • Jim,
        Ya I was young then …I didn’t realize back then in 1970s and 80s that the purpose of Government was to make everything as expensive as possible….And Claim just the opposite…So I will agree the Shuttle was not a Hugh Failure because for some it was very successful!!!…Lets just call it a Hugh R&D Project or Massive Corruption on Universal scale….

        Does that mean total cost to development this point for Spacex is $476 Million?

        Also Ya don’t expect BUSH to get any credit for this…Even though his admin created this process…

  3. Jim – You continue to be a voice of sanity in the “We love you Elon” circus. Keep fighting the good fight with the knowledge that in the end, the truth will out. In the meantime remember the truism, “Never try to teach a pig to sing, it only wastes your time and annoys the pig.” O.K. all you Musketeers, mercenary bloggers, and NASA-bashers, open fire!

  4. I have to agree with Jim that failure or success cannot be determined by cost. By that definition, SpaceX failed (more taxpayer money was spent than investor dollars). I do not believe that SpaceX failed at all. I think it’s very cool that a commercial company (although they seriously stretched the defenition of commercial) has succesfully made it to the ISS-congratulations, SpaceX.
    I hope that this will spark a real space race that will create jobs, inspire new generations and teach us how to function in space on a regular basis. Both the commercial industry and the government must get beyond the money problems (I don’t know what the solution to this will be, but it must happen). I still believe that getting beyond LEO should be a fully funded government objective, but it will never happen as long as our greatest goal is simplified to “reducing cost”. We need a wholehearted change in funding practices for NASA missions. I believe this will happen when we have good and clearly articulated space goals.

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