CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 20 - A Space Exploration Technologies' cargo ship made an Easter Sunday delivery of food, science experiments and supplies to the crew living aboard the International Space Station.
Station commander Koichi Wakata used the outpost's 58-foot (18-meter) robotic crane to snare the Dragon capsule from orbit at 7:14 a.m. EDT/1114 GMT, ending its 36-hour journey. At the time, the station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations, was sailing 260 miles (418 km) over the Nile River.
"Good work catching the Dragon," astronaut Jack Fischer, from NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, radioed to the crew.
"It's been a long road. Good job to everybody and thanks for getting her onboard," he said during a live broadcast on NASA Television.
The freighter held a new spacesuit for spacewalks, legs for the station's prototype humanoid helper robot, an experimental laser communications system, high-definition video cameras, a prototype greenhouse and more than two tons of other gear.
Dragon will be reloaded with science samples and equipment no longer needed on the station and returned to Earth in about a month.
SpaceX, as the company is known, is one of two firms which were hired by NASA to fly cargo to the space station after the space shuttles were retired in 2011.
It had planned to launch its Dragon cargo ship in March, but the launch was delayed by technical problems, including a two-week wait to replace a damaged U.S. Air Force radar tracking system.
The Falcon 9 rocket carrying Dragon finally lifted off at 3:25 p.m. EDT/1925 GMT on Friday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The launch provided privately owned SpaceX an opportunity to carry out another test in its quest to develop a reusable rocket.
After the Falcon 9's first-stage section separated from the upper-stage motor and Dragon capsule, the discarded rocket relit some of its engines to slow its fall back through the atmosphere and position itself to touch down vertically on the ocean before gravity toppled it horizontal.
Data transmitted from an airplane tracking the booster's descent indicated it splashed down intact in the Atlantic Ocean - a first for the company.
"Data upload from tracking plane shows landing in Atlantic was good! Several boats enroute through heavy seas," SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter late Friday.
SpaceX hopes to return a Falcon 9 booster to land before the end of the year. Eventually, it would like to recover and reuse its rockets to minimize launch costs.
"There are just a few more steps that need to be there to have it all work," Musk told reporters after Friday's launch. "I think we've got a decent chance of bringing a stage back this year, which would be wonderful."
So far, SpaceX has made one test flight and three cargo runs to the station under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The company is also competing to develop a space taxi for astronauts. (Editing by Barbara Goldberg)