MELBOURNE, Fla. — NASA may now call upon two private couriers to resupply the International Space Station, fulfilling a vision established years before the space shuttle's retirement.
Expedition 37 astronauts Monday morning planned to open the hatch on Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus spacecraft, which on Sunday became the second commercial cargo ship to visit the outpost, after SpaceX's Dragon last year.
Engineers in Orbital's Dulles, Va., control room cheered as Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano snared the unmanned Cygnus with the station's 58-foot robotic arm at 7 a.m., as the vehicles flew 261 miles above the Indian Ocean.
"It was really everything we would have wished for today," astronaut Cady Coleman radioed to the crew from Houston.
By 8:45 a.m., the Cygnus — Latin for "swan" — and its 1,300 pounds of cargo were firmly bolted to a station port.
The spacecraft is expected to remain attached for three weeks, ample time to unload the demonstration cargo of food, clothes and student science experiments and to pack the spacecraft with trash.
It will all burn up during a destructive reentry through the atmosphere.
But Orbital and NASA are already looking ahead to December, when the company is scheduled to launch the first of eight missions under a $1.9 billion resupply contract.
"They're good to go," said Alan Lindenmoyer, head of the NASA program that helped develop and fund the new commercial cargo systems. "They've got a demonstrated system that certainly can deliver."
The berthing came a week later than planned, after a navigation software glitch postponed an earlier rendezvous, but Sunday's approach was smooth and uneventful.
Appearing first as a bright white dot in the distance, the Cygnus gradually climbed beneath the station to reveal its cylindrical shape and twin solar array wings.
"I know the crew is going to be very happy when they get the hatch open and get a chance to see all the things that are in there," said Frank Culbertson, a former astronaut who heads Orbital's advanced programs group.
The mission caps a highly successful public private-partnership that saw NASA entrust key human spaceflight capabilities to the private sector, while paying its two partners nearly $700 million combined.
Also Sunday, SpaceX's upgraded Falcon 9 rocket appeared to complete a successful first launch, blasting off from California and placing a Canadian science satellite in orbit.
The taller, 224-foot rocket lifted off at noon Eastern from Vandenberg Air Force Base, propelled by Merlin 1D engines that provided 50 percent more thrust than the original Falcon 9.
Communication links were lost before deployment of the small Cassiope satellite, but the Canadian Space Agency confirmed that the spacecraft was in orbit and communicating with the ground.
NASA expects the Cygnus and Dragon to serve as the station's workhorse resupply ships in the years ahead.
"This is critical to the continuation of the station, and the continuation of U.S. leadership in space," Culbertson said.