SpaceX on Friday became the first commercial outfit to dock its own cargo capsule at the International Space Station, marking what experts have hailed as a new era for private spaceflight.
The California-based SpaceX, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, has now reached the climax of its test mission to become the first privately owned craft to reach the space station, restoring U.S. access to the space outpost.
With no humans on board, the capsule is delivering about a half ton of supplies and science experiments for the ISS, and aims to return a slightly larger load of gear to Earth on May 31.
"It looks like we got us a Dragon by the tail," said U.S. astronaut Don Pettit, who was operating the Canadian-built robotic arm from the space station as it reached out and hooked on to the unmanned SpaceX capsule at 9:56 am.
The two spacecraft were traveling about 250 miles above northwest Australia at the time of the grab, NASA said.
"Dragon captured by the International Space Station! Just awesome," wrote SpaceX chief executive Musk on Twitter.
Next, a formal berthing brought the capsule closer to latch on at the station's Harmony module at 12:02 pm, NASA said.
The Dragon is toting 1,148 pounds of goodies for the space lab, including food, supplies, computers, utilities and science experiments. It plans to return a 1,455-pound load to Earth.
"Everything has gone very smoothly," said a NASA commentator, adding that the six member ISS crew would soon start working on equalizing pressure between the two spacecraft.
The hatches are set to open on Saturday so that the unloading of the Dragon's more than half ton of cargo can begin.
A press conference is scheduled for 1:00 pm to discuss more details on the mission.
The U.S. space shuttle program ended last year, leaving only Russia capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS and the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe able to send cargo missions to service the $100 billion space station.
SpaceX hopes its gumdrop-shaped Dragon capsule will be able to carry astronauts to the ISS in about three years' time. Until then, U.S. astronauts must pay Russia about $63 million per seat aboard the Soyuz.
The capsule blasted off atop the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Tuesday.
The demonstration flight has been near flawless, according to progress reports from NASA and SpaceX, after the launch marked what NASA, the White House and SpaceX officials described as a "new era" in spaceflight.
In addition, a successful berthing mission opens the way for SpaceX's $1.6 billion contract with NASA to supply the space station and return cargo to Earth in 12 missions over the coming years.
SpaceX and a handful of other companies are using their own funds but are also being helped in their endeavors with seed money from NASA to build cargo and crew capability.
Both SpaceX and NASA have praised their newfound partnership, while insisting that any missteps that may occur are a necessary part of such demonstration missions.
While SpaceX is the first in its field, its competitor Orbital Sciences also has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to supply the space station and is scheduled for its first launch attempt later this year.
SpaceX is the brainchild of Musk, a 40-year-old billionaire who made his fortune founding a company that later merged with the PayPal online service, bought by Internet auction giant eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.
Today he leads SpaceX, Tesla Motors -- a venture marketing electric cars -- and SolarCity, a company that makes solar panels for homes and businesses.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012