A Dragon Shakes Hands With the Space Station

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The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is moved into position for docking with the International Space Station in this image captured from NASA TV on May 25, 2012.

There's a little purple dragon on the Capcom console in Mission Control in Houston. But even if you had been in the room this morning, you could be forgiven for not noticing it. That's because, 250 mi. (402 km) up, a much bigger Dragon was doing something remarkable. That Dragon, of course, is a spacecraft, one that belongs to Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—better known as SpaceX. On Tuesday, the company launched the first private spacecraft aiming to dock with the International Space Station (ISS)—and at 8:56 CST this morning, Dragon accomplished that mission.

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"Houston, Station, looks like we've got a Dragon by the tail," exulted flight engineer Don Pettit, as he slowly reached out with the station's maneuvering arm and grabbed hold of the 12-ft. (3.7 m) wide, 20 ft. (6.1 m) long, Apollo-like vehicle. The teams in Houston and SpaceX's own Mission Control in Hawthorne, Ca. whooped and cheered, and Pettit then added, "This sim went really well; we're ready to turn around and do it for real," a joking reference to the uncounted hours the team put in simulating the maneuver before actually getting to execute it today.

There are a lot of good reasons the teams in Houston, Hawthorne and up in orbit practiced so hard. The first is simply that getting two spacecraft that are blazing around the planet at 17,500 mph (28,200 k/h) to line up so perfectly that, relative to each other, they're standing still is just a bloody hard thing to do. More important, both NASA and SpaceX have a lot riding on this mission.

The idea of retiring the space shuttles without having a reliable replacement set to go was always a little half-baked. NASA has had extended down-periods before when it was not capable of putting people into space: during the inquests that followed the Challenger and Columbia disasters in 1986 and 2003, and the even longer 6-year interregnum after the last Saturn booster flew in 1975 and the first shuttle took off in 1981. But in all of those cases, the agency had at least cast its lot with the shuttle and was committed to flying it as its vehicle of choice. When the last of the snake-bit space-planes flew last summer, however, the outlook for the future was murkier: Getting to low-Earth orbit would be left to the private sector, while NASA would still handle human travel to more distant points. Just what those destinations would be (the moon? Mars? An asteroid?) was left unclear, while the new spacecraft themselves are still unbuilt.

But NASA has handled at least the privatizing part of the puzzle much more deftly than skeptics expected. In 2006 it announced its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, throwing the door open to private-sector companies bidding to become the space agency's—and perhaps the nation's—principal taxi to orbit. Two leaders quickly emerged: Orbital Sciences in Vienna, Va., and Musk's SpaceX. Both were awarded development contracts in 2008, and while Orbital Sciences is reportedly making steady progress with its Antares rocket, SpaceX—with its Dragon craft and Falcon booster—has clearly vaulted ahead. The company has a $1.6 billion contract to make 12 resupply runs to the ISS, with an option to add additional missions for a total value of $3.1 billion, should NASA like what it sees.

It's hard to see how NASA couldn't. In 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to orbit a spacecraft and recover it successfully. And today's maneuver is even bigger news. As Musk Tweeted shortly after the successful link-up, the folks in a position to sign him to even bigger contracts are thrilled:

"The President just called to say congrats. Caller ID was blocked, so at first I thought it was a telemarketer :)"

President Obama has nearly as much invested in this as Musk does, since NASA's current public-private direction was essentially dictated by his administration—causing the White House no end of criticism for the plan's seeming aimlessness. Obama has little hope of carrying Texas, home of Mission Control, this November, but Florida, a swing state with an underemployed space sector, is watching the Dragon mission closely.

Musk is not to everybody's liking. NASA old-timers don't care for his sometimes fanciful ways. The Falcon booster was named after Han Solo's Millennium Falcon, and Dragon was named after Puff, the ship's reportedly magic cousin. Musk has also rarely adhered to the old-style of humble, scripted sound bites after a success. People who resist the idea of private space travel "will be fighting on the wrong side of history's war," he said, somewhat triumphally, after his 2010 success.

Still, as Dizzy Dean, the Hall of Fame pitcher for 1934 World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals famously said: "It ain't bragging if you can back it up." Today Musk backed it up—and the bragging rights are all his.