“Houston, Station; looks like we got us a Dragon by the tail.”
With those words, NASA astronaut Don Pettit confirmed that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule had made spaceflight history by becoming the first commercial vehicle to arrive at the International Space Station. The Dragon was captured by the robotic Canadarm2 at 9:56AM EDT (13:56 UTC) as the ISS passed over Northwest Australia. Berthing with the station was completed approximately two hours later at 12:02PM EDT (16:02 UTC).
This video from NASA shows the moment of capture:
The Dragon began its final approach to the station early Friday morning, completing most of its demonstration maneuvers without an issue. A minor glitch occurred as the Dragon made its first attempt to proceed to the 30-meter hold point, when the craft’s LIDAR picked up stray reflections from the Japanese Experiment Module. SpaceX commanded the Dragon to retreat to 70 meters, narrowed the LIDAR’s field of view to exclude the erroneous signals, and commanded the spacecraft to close again.
Capture occurred while the station was in darkness. NASA originally indicated the astronauts aboard the station would wait for daylight, but after additional exterior lights were activated, the decision was made to proceed.
After the Dragon was grappled, NASA and SpaceX took the opportunity for a shift change before the spacecraft was slowly guided to the nadir (Earth-facing) port on the station’s Harmony module. The two-stage berthing process, which includes the installation of sixteen bolts to ensure a tight seal between the vehicles, was completed as the ISS passed over the United States’ Pacific Northwest.
The commercial spaceflight milestone also marks the first time an American vehicle has visited the ISS since July 2011, when Atlantis flew the space shuttle program’s final mission. The Dragon’s hatch will be opened tomorrow morning at approximately 7:40AM EDT (11:40 UTC). NASA TV coverage of the event will begin at 5:30AM EDT (9:30 UTC). In yesterday’s press conference, SpaceX mission director John Couluris said a camera installed in the Dragon capsule would provide imagery of the event from the Dragon’s perspective.