CAPE CANAVERAL – A SpaceX Dragon unmanned freighter is moored at the International Space Station on Sunday after a two-day trip initially marred by steering thruster trouble.
A day late because of the problems, the spacecraft’s high-flying arrival took place Sunday 253 miles above northern Ukraine, much to the delight of the six astronauts and cosmonauts onboard the complex.
“The Dragon is ours!” tweeted Chris Hadfield, who next week will become the first Canadian to command the space station. “Look forward to new smells. Great!”
Among the supplies: something fresh and nutritious from a California orchard run by the father of a SpaceX employee, said company President Gwynne Shotwell.
Station astronauts treasure fresh fruit. They primarily subsist on meals-ready-to-eat. Hadfield clearly was anxious to see what was inside the SpaceX cargo ship. In a good-morning tweet Sunday, the former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot said he was looking forward to going into Dragon’s “belly & see what it brought us.”
Later Sunday, Hadfield tweeted: “Opened the hatch to find fresh fruit, notes from friends and peanut butter.”
Launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Dragon is carrying more than a ton of supplies and scientific research equipment.
Three of its four steering thruster pods failed to activate properly after it reached orbit, threatening to scuttle the cargo delivery mission. However, SpaceX engineers fixed the trouble, and the Dragon flew off toward the space station.
A planned arrival Saturday was pushed back a day. The recovery enabled the spacecraft to ignite thrusters in a series of firings to raise its orbit.
Hadfield spotted the carrier well before it reached the vicinity of the outpost.
“Just caught sight of the Dragon spaceship, crisply white against the horizon, sneaking up on us from behind,” he tweeted. “We’re readying to grapple.”
Operating the outpost’s 57.5-foot robotic arm, U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford latched onto the commercial spacecraft at 5:31 a.m. EST, about an hour ahead of schedule.
“That was a brilliant capture,” NASA astronaut Kate Rubins said from Mission Control in Houston. “We’d like to congratulate you on a job well done.”
Alluding to the thruster trouble, Ford offered his congratulations to SpaceX and NASA: “As they say, it’s not where you start it’s where you finish that counts, and you guys really finished this one on the mark.”
Ford was assisted by U.S. astronaut Tom Marshburn and Hadfield. Flight controllers at NASA’s Mission Control Center berthed the Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the U.S. Harmony module at 8:56 a.m.
Ford will turn the station over to Hadfield during a change-of-command ceremony March 13. The next day, Ford and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin will return to Earth. The crew remaining also includes cosmonaut Roman Romanenko.
The Dragon will return to Earth on March 25 with about 2,600 pounds of experiment samples and other gear, a capability deemed critical now that U.S. space shuttles no longer are flying. The Dragon now is the only vehicle that can bring back significant amounts of cargo. It will make a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California.
The ongoing cargo delivery mission is the second of 12 SpaceX will fly under a $1.6 billion NASA contract.
Another private company, Orbital Sciences Corp., will begin flying commercial supply runs to the station in early 2014. The Virginia-based firm holds a $1.9 billion NASA contract to fly eight cargo resupply missions to the outpost. A mission to demonstrate the company’s ability to safely and reliably delivery cargo to the outpost is scheduled later this year.