THE idea behind private spaceflight is simple: the spur of competition should enable private firms to develop cheaper, more reliable rockets than a costly state-run enterprise such as NASA could ever hope to manage. Last year SpaceX, a firm founded by the PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first privately built and operated vehicle to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Earlier this year, another Dragon fulfilled the first stage of SpaceX's 12-mission, $1.6 billion contract to haul cargo to the station.
Now the firm, hitherto something of a monopolist in the private space business, at last has a true competitor, in the shape of another private-spaceflight veteran: the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. On September 29th Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft, with hundreds of kilograms of supplies on board, was grabbed by the ISS's robotic arm and guided to a docking berth. The capsule had been in orbit since September 18th, but a previous docking attempt on September 22nd had been aborted because of software problems. This time, though, things went smoothly, leaving the firm well placed to begin fulfilling its own $1.9 billion cargo-resupply contract.