This morning marks an historic achievement for private spaceflight. At 9:56 am EDT SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station marking the first time a private spacecraft has rendezvoused with the orbital lab. The time of nation-state dominance in space has come to an end with this historic link-up. SpaceX has shown the world that space is open for all of humanity, not just governments. What was once done by clandestine government agencies motivated by one-upmanship is now achievable for citizens for the advancement of space exploration and colonization.
Image Credit: NASA/SpaceX
During the docking, astronaut Don Petit on-board the space station used the giant 58-foot grapple arm called Canadarm2 to reel Dragon in for berthing. After grabbing a hold of the capsule, Petit said to Mission Control in Houston, “Houston, station, it looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail” followed by applause in Houston and SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA. The operation was done in almost total darkness during orbital night using only the ISS’s exterior lights to illuminate the capsule and the grappling arm. However, the rendezvous was not without a hiccup. On Dragon’s approach to the space station, its navigation system experienced a glitch. Dragon uses a system called LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to measure distances. The LIDAR uses laser beams to measure the distance to objects by observing how long it takes the beams of light to reflect back off an object. The LIDAR experienced a glitch when stray light reflections from another module on the space station were being gathered by device. Dragon’s mission control was quick on its feet and resolved the problem by narrowing LIDAR’s field of view to eliminate the stray light. All went smoothly from there.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk is one step closer to realizing the dream of his company, to make humanity a multi-planet species. Although that goal is a very long way off, this historic accomplishment’s importance cannot be overlooked. Whether a SpaceX craft is the vehicle that takes humans to Mars or not, SpaceX has helped NASA by freeing up precious budget room that can now be devoted to planning for a Mars mission. Now NASA doesn’t have to build and fund another transport vehicle to low-Earth orbit. Now we can look forward to a future when governments and private companies cooperate in space to achieve massive goals once possible only in dreams. Now, we can, to use the common phrase, boldly go where no man has gone before!