SpaceX gave some big shots at the White House and NASA's political office suites a few bad moments last week when its Dragon cargo carrier had trouble getting its attitude-control thrusters running.
Politicians and bureaucrats don't necessarily have "the right stuff," but fortunately the SpaceX controllers in Hawthorne, Calif., and their NASA engineering overseers do.
While the VIP bus at Cape Canaveral was aflutter with fretting about an uncontrolled splashdown in the Atlantic on Sunday, the SpaceX engineers were quietly going through their checklists to figure out what was wrong. The clock was running, but there turned out to be plenty of time.
And the technical people who actually do the work at NASA didn't panic either. They knew they didn't have to let an out-of-control Dragon anywhere near the space station, and they made sure it was working properly before allowing it to move within grapple range.
As reported by my colleague Mark Carreau in Houston, the SpaceX team had the thrusters firing about five hours after a perfect launch on the company's Falcon 9 rocket. Instead of a splashdown, we were treated to a grapple and berthing at the International Space Station early Sunday morning.
That's how it goes. The SpaceX crew deserves credit for doing their job. Sure, the were lucky to get things resolved before power or altitude became a problem. But they made their own luck.
And that start to the ongoing mission to resupply the ISS bodes well for the future of NASA's plans to cede low Earth orbit launch to the private sector. The Dragon still must remain safely berthed for two weeks or so, and then return to a Pacific splashdown with its 1,200-kg load of scientific samples and other "down-mass." But so far, so good.
ISS Astronaut Kevin Ford summed up the situation after helping grapple the Dragon.
"It's not where you start," he radioed to controllers. "It's where you finish. You guys really finished this one on the mark."