Working ahead of schedule, astronauts aboard the International Space Station successfully grappled and berthed the unpiloted SpaceX Dragon re-supply capsule early Oct. 10, less than 60 hr. after the freighter lifted off.

The three-member crew was scheduled to enter the supply ship on Oct. 11, or possibly late Oct. 10, for a 17-day, 2,675-lb. cargo swap — much of it to support the 166 science experiments and technology demonstrations under way on the orbiting science laboratory. The SpaceX mission marks the first cargo flight under the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s $1.6 billion, multi-mission NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract.

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, positioned at a control panel for the Canadian robot arm in the station’s Cupola observation deck, reached out with the 17.7-meter (58-ft.-long) mechanical limb to nab Dragon at 6:56 a.m. EDT, nearly a half hour ahead of schedule.

Working with NASA’s Mission Control, station commander Sunita Williams of NASA took over the task of berthing Dragon to the station’s U.S. Harmony segment with the robot arm at 9:03 a.m. EDT, also well ahead of schedule.

“Looks like we tamed the Dragon,” Williams said of a mission that signals the return of a U.S. cargo delivery and resupply capability lost as NASA’s space shuttle program retired in mid-2011. “We’re happy she is on board with us.”

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, was among those in the Johnson Space Center control center, observing.

“I look at the vision of where we were when we laid out this concept to bring in some commercial providers,” Gerstenmaier said of the agency’s six-year-old Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. “There were a lot of skeptics at the beginning, but as evidenced today, I think you are starting to see this can work. We need to not lose sight of how difficult this is.”

The suspense that accompanied the Oct. 7 liftoff of the SpaceX CRS-1 mission — including the loss of a Falcon 9 first-stage engine 79 sec. into flight — faded once the spacecraft reached orbit and began a series of successful rendezvous maneuvers under the supervision of the SpaceX control team in Hawthorne.

Over the course of its flight and final approach, the commercial freighter transitioned smoothly from GPS, to relative GPS, lidar and thermal imaging rendezvous sensors without the temporary difficulties that surfaced during Dragon’s May test mission, which prompted changes in the flight software. The test was flown under the sponsorship of the COTS program, which is nurturing a second commercial resupply contractor, Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles, Va., toward a spring 2013 test flight and operational missions to follow.

“They are making good solid progress,” Gerstenmaier said of Orbital. “We need both companies. We can’t do it with SpaceX alone.”

Prior to capture, Dragon reached a series of “hold points” at 350, 250, 30 and 10 meters (1,148, 820, 98 and 33 ft.) below the station, arriving 10 to 15 min. early each time. Each “go” to advance from NASA’s Mission Control followed quickly, making the complex operation seem almost leisurely at times.

“It’s nice to see Dragon flying over the U.S.,” Williams noted as Dragon closed within 250 meters of the station prior to the capture.

Williams and Hoshide plan to extract a multi-national cargo of food, clothing, research gear and spare parts weighing nearly 1,000 lb. The capsule will be re-loaded with nearly 1,600 lb. of equipment, including nearly 500 frozen blood and urine samples collected from crew members and stored in a freezer since the final NASA shuttle visit in July 2011.

The specimens are crucial to a range of experiments evaluating metabolic changes experienced by astronauts during long-duration spaceflight.

Dragon’s departure is scheduled for Oct. 28. SpaceX recovery ships will be standing by in the Pacific Ocean off the Southern California coast to bring the capsule ashore.