* Smooth maneuvers and flashing strobe lights signal success
* Astronauts will use crane to capture Dragon capsule Friday
* SpaceX is one of two firms with NASA cargo contracts
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., May 24 Space Exploration
Technologies' Dragon spaceship flew smoothly through a practice
drive by the International Space Station on Thursday, clearing
the way for it to become the first private vessel to reach the
If Dragon continues to operate as planned, it will fly to
within about 30 feet (9 metres) of the $100 billion station on
Friday and shut down its maneuvering thrusters so the station
crew can snare it with a robotic crane and hook it onto a
Dragon took a test drive by the station early on Thursday,
coming as close as about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) as the two vessels
soared around the planet at 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kph).
Astronauts aboard the station showed they could command
Dragon by ordering the unmanned capsule to turn on and off its
"“It went very, very smoothly," NASA flight director Holly
Ridings told reporters after the test.
“"We've been training and practicing for many years, but
doing it for the first time with two dynamic spacecraft flying
very close together you always want to make sure that you're
going to be able to work as you trained," she said.
"“It's a big confidence boost," added mission director John
Couluris, with California-based Space Exploration Technologies,
"“It's exciting to be an American and part of putting an
American spacecraft into orbit. We're very proud right now," he
With the retirement of the space shuttles last year, the
United States is dependent on station partners Europe, Japan and
especially Russia to reach the orbiting laboratory, which flies
about 240 miles (390 km) above Earth.
Rather than building a government-owned and operated
replacement for the shuttle, the Obama administration is
supporting private industry efforts to develop cargo ships and
space taxis so NASA can buy flight services instead, a far
If SpaceX's Dragon continues to operate as planned, the
company will be cleared to begin working off its 12-flight, $1.6
billion NASA contract to fly cargo to and from the station. A
second freighter owned by Orbital Sciences Corp is
expected to debut later this year.
NASA is incubating similar partnerships to develop passenger
spaceships, which would break the U.S. reliance on Russia for
crew flight services that cost about $400 million a year.
Dragon blasted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Tuesday.
If all goes as planned, station flight engineers Don Pettit
and Andre Kuipers will use the station's 58-foot (17.7-metre)
robot arm to pluck Dragon from orbit at about 11:30 a.m. EDT
(1530 GMT) on Friday and attach it to a berthing port on the
station's Harmony connecting node.
“"It is a test flight so I don't want to jinx myself and say
what I can expect (on Friday) and then see something different,"
Couluris said. "“We fly by the mantra of 'Train like you fly and
then fly like you train,' and so far the mission has been
proceeding just like a regular simulation."
Dragon is carrying about 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of food,
water, clothing and supplies for the station crew.
The capsule will be repacked with equipment to come back to
Earth, leaving the space station on May 31 and splashing down in
the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California later