The Dragon capsule is attached to the International Space Station on May 25, 2012.
Credit: NASA TV
This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. EDT.
The historic arrival of a private capsule at the International Space Station today marks the dawn of a new era in spaceflight and exploration, NASA and industry officials say.
SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule docked at the huge orbiting station at 12:02 p.m. EDT (1602 GMT) today (May 25), becoming the first commercial spacecraft in history to do so. Dragon's success shows that commercial spaceships have the right stuff, and it should pave the way for many more of them to get off the ground in the future, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said.
"I think it's a great day for the country and for the world," Musk said in a post-docking press conference Friday. "This really is, I think, going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel, and hopefully the first of many to come."
A big day for NASA, too
NASA officials were thrilled with the day's events as well. The space agency is counting on private craft like Dragon to carry cargo, and eventually crew, to the station in the wake of the space shuttle's retirement last year. [SpaceX's Dragon Arrives at Space Station (Pictures)]
"It was an effort that will revolutionize the way we carry out space exploration, with the private sector taking over responsibility for transportation to the ISS," NASA chief Charlie Bolden said in a congratulatory call to the space station crew today. "This will free NASA up to focus on the really hard stuff, like sending our astronauts to an asteroid and, eventually, on to Mars."
SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to make 12 robotic supply runs to the orbiting lab with Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket, and the capsule's performance on its current demonstration mission is making that look like a good investment.
As long as Dragon is able to make its way back to Earth safely, the first of those 12 bona fide cargo missions will likely blast off this September, NASA officials said. (The capsule is slated to depart the station on May 31 and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off California, where it will be recovered by SpaceX personnel.)
"This truly is the beginning of a new era in commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.
Though today's press conference was held in Houston, Musk and Lindenmoyer joined in from SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Their words were often drowned out by the cheers of ecstatic SpaceX personnel celebrating the successful orbital meet-up between Dragon and the $100 billion space station.
SpaceX's big dreams
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with one primary goal in mind — to help humanity settle worlds beyond Earth. And today's docking brings that ambitious aim a little closer to reality, he said.
"I'm really excited, because this was a crucial step," Musk said. "It makes the things in the future — and the ultimate path toward humanity becoming a multiplanet species — much, much more likely. The chances of that happening just went up dramatically, so people should be really excited about that."
Before we can think seriously about colonizing other worlds, Musk has said, the cost of spaceflight needs to come down considerably. Toward this end, SpaceX is working to develop a fully reusable rocket, in contrast with the expendable launch vehicles in widespread use today.
"The cost of the fuel is only about 0.3 percent of the cost of the mission," Musk said. "So if rockets can be made reusable, then it's possible to reduce the cost of spaceflight maybe by a factor of 100 or more."
SpaceX is also upgrading Dragon to carry crew, and it hopes to be flying astronauts to the space station within the next three years or so. Manned flights to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, such as Mars, may come into the company's sights after that.