A robotic arm high above the earth reached out and successfully grabbed an unmanned capsule for a historic docking of the first private spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.
The connection on Friday sealed a six-year-old contract between Nasa, the US space agency, and SpaceX, a California-based space industry start-up led by a dotcom billionaire.
Dragon blasted off on Tuesday atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, half a century after the first US astronaut was put into orbit from the famous launch site.
Charles Bolden, Nasa administrator, said the docking marked a “critical step in the future of American space flight”.
"Now that a US company has proven its ability to resupply the space station, it opens a new frontier for commercial opportunities in space – and new job creation opportunities right here in the US,” he said.
For Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief executive, it represented the achievement of a long-cherished ambition and the paying off of a huge gamble with his estimated $2bn personal fortune, earned largely as an executive at PayPal, the online payments company bought by eBay.
“There is so much hope riding on this rocket,” he said this week, “It is like the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavour.“
SpaceX, which has grown to a workforce of 1,800, signed an agreement with Nasa in 2006 worth $1.6bn for “commercial orbital transportation services”, under which its rockets and capsules would prove their capability to carry supplies to the space station.
There have been setbacks along the way, including failed launches, but this week’s mission was a second demonstration flight to highlight any potential issues and the first to dock with the ISS.
Nasa’s mission control watched the SpaceX Dragon capsule’s every move as it approached the space station, testing its systems and manoeuvrability, before it was allowed to move into a 20-metre berthing box. Astronauts then used the robotic arm to grab the capsule, pull it in and bolt it to the space station.
The ISS crew will enter Dragon over the weekend and spend the next four days retrieving more than 1,000lbs of supplies. These will be exchanged for hardware no longer needed before Dragon is due to be detached and return to earth, splashing down off the California coast on May 31.
Other commercial space ventures include Virgin Galactic, which plans flights for space tourists, while Google’s Lunar X prize is offering $30m to the first private venture to put a robot on the moon.