While more circumspect, NASA and White House officials also heralded the day.
Presidential science adviser John P. Holdren, in a statement, called the moment “an achievement of historic scientific and technological significance” and “a key milepost in President Obama’s vision for America’s continued leadership in space.”
NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., attending the International Space Development Conference in Washington, watched on a video screen and exclaimed, “We have berthed!”
Friday’s success edges SpaceX closer to sending astronauts back into orbit from American soil. After retiring its space shuttles last year, NASA now relies on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the station — at $63 million a seat. Last year, the agency funded four U.S. companies, including SpaceX, to build a space vehicle safe enough for humans.
But NASA and the Obama administration are battling Congress over funding. The administration wants $800 million for the commercial crew program next year, but the House of Representatives wants to cut that nearly in half. NASA’s Bolden has vehemently pushed back.
On Friday, Musk said that SpaceX could be ready to fly people into space by 2015.
But Scott Pace, a space policy expert at George Washington University and an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said the company first needs a track record. “They need to fly [cargo] six or seven times consecutively,” he said.
With nearly 2,000 employees, SpaceX is ramping up production to fulfill $4 billion in contracts, with NASA just one of their customers. The company is young — the average employee age is 30 — and Musk said he’s picked a team that balances “the wisdom of age with the vibrancy of youth.”
Their next mission — the first of 12 deliveries to the station — is slated for September.
Meanwhile, a local company, Orbital Sciences of Dulles, is preparing a new launchpad on Wallops Island, Va., to send its new cargo carrier to the space station late this year.
The two companies are slated to make the bulk of cargo runs in the future to the station, which is now supplied by Russia, Japan and the European Union.
Along with food, water and computers, the Dragon carried a tiny cargo that began its journey in the District: two vials with a waste-purifying experiment designed by eighth-graders at Stuart-Hobson Middle School. Station astronauts will snap the vials like glow sticks, mingling bacillus bacteria with egg white.
Kyra Smith, the 14-year-old D.C. Public Schools student who conceived the experiment, said, “I’m interested in environmental conservation, so I thought astronauts that go up into the space station could reuse water and save space on their rockets.” If her experiment works, the bacteria will clear out the egg white — which is standing in for human waste. The experiment is one of 15 on the Dragon chosen from among 800 schools.
The program was started by the nonprofit National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in Capitol Heights to give students experience running experiments.
On Thursday, Dragon is scheduled to depart the station, carrying Smith’s vials along with frozen blood and urine from astronaut biology experiments and old spacesuit parts. If all goes well, it will splash down in the Pacific later that day.