by Alan McBride
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. -- A dragon is orbiting Earth, docked to the International Space Station.
The blunt capsule, made by the private contractor SpaceX, marks a singular moment in history for space flight. It's the first private space craft to dock at the outpost, after its launch from Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX designed and built the Falcon 9 rocket that sent the Dragon on its way to the space station, and space station astronauts grappled the robot space craft and berthed it to the orbiting lab.
No private company has ever sent a space craft to the space station before now. Only major governments have attempted to send vehicles until this point.
SpaceX has contracted with NASA for a series of commercial cargo flights to the outpost, with two on the books for this calendar year.
Commercial space carrier Orbital Sciences Corp. is also planning demonstration flights and cargo runs to the space station. Its first launch is scheduled for this year.
Under plans enacted by the president, NASA is turning space station supply, and eventually crew, flights to the private sector.
The plans will give NASA the freedom and flexibility to pursue larger objectives, which include the development of a heavy lift rocket and a manned capsule that will send humans beyond Earth orbit beginning with the next decade.
The Dragon, launched from Cape Canaveral, is the first of many.
The companies Blue Horizons and Sierra Nevada are joining SpaceX and Orbital Sciences in the new space race, and are testing prototypes of commercial manned space craft.
SpaceX is continuing work on a manned variant of the Dragon, which can carry seven astronauts into orbital destinations.
Boeing also has started work on a manned capsule.