Space station astronauts enter the Dragon

May 28, 2012

Space station astronauts floated into the Dragon on Saturday, a day after its heralded arrival as the world’s first commercial supply ship.

NASA astronaut Donald Pettit, the first one inside the docked capsule, said the Dragon looks as if it carries about as much cargo as his pickup truck back home in Houston. It has the smell of a new car, he added.

“I spent quite a bit of time poking around in here this morning, just looking at the engineering and the layout, and I’m very pleased,” Pettit said from the compartment.

To protect against possible debris, Pettit wore goggles, a mask and a caver’s light as he slid open the hatch of the newest addition to the international space station. The complex sailed 250 miles above the Tasman Sea, just west of New Zealand, as he and his crew mates made their entrance. The atmosphere was clean; no dirt or other particles were floating around.

“This event isn’t just a simple door opening between two spacecraft — it opens the door to a future in which U.S. industry can and will deliver huge benefits for U.S. space exploration,” the Space Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

California-based SpaceX is the first private company to send a vessel to the space station. It’s run by Elon Musk, a billionaire who helped create PayPal and founded the electric car company Tesla Motors.

Now that the space shuttles are retired, NASA is handing over orbital delivery work to U.S. business in order to focus on bigger objectives, such as getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars. The space agency hopes astronaut ferry trips will follow soon; SpaceX contends its Dragons could be carrying space station astronauts up and back within three or four years.

Flight controllers were ecstatic to be at the cusp of this new commercial era.

“It’s great to see you guys inside Dragon. It looks great,” Mission Control radioed.

The six space station residents have until the middle of next week to unload Dragon’s groceries and refill the capsule with science experiments and equipment for return to Earth. Unlike all the other cargo ships that fly to the orbiting lab, the Dragon is designed for safe reentry. It will be freed on Thursday and aim for a Pacific splashdown.

Until now, only major governments have launched cargo ships to the space station. Russia, Japan and Europe will keep providing supplies, and Russia will continue to sell rocket rides to U.S. astronauts until SpaceX or other companies are ready to take over. Several American enterprises are competing to do so.

Pettit noted that the Dragon is roomier than the Russian Soyuz spacecraft he rode up in.

“Flying up in a human-rated Dragon is not going to be an issue,” he said during a news conference.

Associated Press

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