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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship and guided the privately owned craft into a docking berth on Friday, opening a new chapter in the U.S. space program.
The unmanned capsule was the first commercial spaceship to reach the orbital outpost.
"This really is the beginning of a new era in commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, who manages NASA's commercial space transportation programs.
Using the station's 58-foot long (17.7-meter) robotic crane, NASA astronaut Don Pettit snared Dragon at 9:56 a.m. EDT as the two spacecraft zoomed 250 miles over northwest Australia at 17,500 miles per hour.
"It looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail," Pettit radioed to NASA Mission Control in Houston.
The capsule, built and operated by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is the first of two new commercial freighters NASA will use to ferry cargo to the $100 billion space station following the retirement of its space shuttles last year. Rather than building and flying its own ships to the station, the agency is hiring private companies to do the work.
The Dragon capsule is carrying about 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of food, water, clothing and supplies for the station crew, who were scheduled to open the hatch on Saturday.
The spaceship will be repacked with more than 1,300 pounds (590 kg) of equipment to come back to Earth and depart the station on May 31. It would splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California later that day.
"As a country we should be very proud," NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters after the station crew attached Dragon to the Harmony connecting node shortly after noon EDT.
"We've taken a capability that this agency has nurtured for many, many years and combined that with a different thought process in the design and development of spacecraft," Suffredini said.
The United States plans to use a similar process to buy commercial flight services for its astronauts as well, breaking Russia's monopoly on flying crews to the station.
"I don't have words enough to express the level of excitement and elation that we feel here at SpaceX," company founder and chief executive Elon Musk said after the docking.
"There's just so much that could have gone wrong and it went right. It's just a fantastic day," he said.
Musk said he got a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama after Dragon reached orbit on its second and most likely final test flight. "Caller ID was blocked, so at first I thought it was a telemarketer," Musk quipped in a Twitter message.
The cone-shaped capsule blasted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Tuesday.
After a successful pass by the station on Thursday to test its navigation and communications systems, Dragon proceeded at a snail's pace on Friday, stopping, starting and occasionally retreating to make sure it could be controlled.
At one point, the SpaceX ground operations team in Hawthorne, California, halted Dragon to adjust the capsule's laser imaging system, which it uses to see the station.
Sensors were picking up stray reflections from the station's Japanese module, said NASA mission commentator Josh Byerly.
Dragon ended up using just one of its two laser imaging systems for the final approach to the station, a bit dicey because a failure would have triggered an automatic abort.
But one eye and a pair of thermal imagers was all Dragon needed to position itself 30 feet beneath the station and within arm's reach of the robotic crane that would haul it up for berthing.
Dragon's successful test flight will clear SpaceX to begin its 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly cargo to and from the station.
A second freighter being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp is expected to debut later this year. Orbital holds a second NASA cargo delivery contract worth $1.9 billion.
The Obama administration is pushing Congress to embrace similar partnership arrangement for commercial space taxis to fly astronauts as well.
Legislators last year halved Obama's request for space taxi design work to $406 million. Proposed spending plans for the year beginning October 1 would cut the White House's $830 million request to no more than $525 million.
The Dragon docking marked a major step for the budding role of private enterprise in space travel.
"I think this really is going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel, so I hope we're the first of many to come," Musk told reporters.
Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Anthony Boadle