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NASA: SpaceX docking ranks near top of space-age 'firsts' (+video)

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Indeed, Dragon was not merely carrying a demonstration payload of roughly 1,000 pounds of food, clothing, and other items to the space station. It was carrying the hopes of a US commercial spaceflight industry aiming to build a thriving space-transportation sector in much the same way fledgling air carriers emerged during the early decades of the 20th Century to build a thriving commercial air-transportation industry.

Over the years, NASA officials have spoken of the “firsts” the US space program has accomplished, said Michael Suffredini, space-station program manager at NASA, at a news briefing Friday afternoon.

“This rates right at the top,” he said of the partnership between NASA and SpaceX. NASA established requirements SpaceX had to meet operating near the space station. Beyond those requirements, he said, “a contractor relatively independent of NASA designed on its own a spacecraft, [then] completely built and tested and flew this spacecraft in a manner that has been remarkable.”

A space-station workout

The rendezvous and docking Friday gave participating space-station crew members a workout.

Although the process of grappling and berthing may look fairly simple, it isn't, notes astronaut Catherine Coleman, who grappled Japan's cargo craft, known by its acronym HTV, on its second supply mission to the station in January 2011. She likens it to trying to pass something from one car to another – when both are traveling at interstate speeds.

On orbit, it's a Grey Poupon moment at 17,500 miles an hour.

“This is truly a momentous accomplishment for SpaceX and for the industry,” said former astronaut and space-station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, now president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in Washington, in a prepared statement.

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